business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Last week, MNB reported on the passing at age 87 of Herb Kelleher, who co-founded Southwest Airlines and in many ways disrupted the value propositions offered by traditional airlines.

It was a story that captured the attention of MNB reader Dennis Meek, who wrote that he was “saddened” by the news … and then went on to explain why in personal terms.

I was flying home from Germany after my unit returned from Iraq during the first Gulf War. Due to flight costs, I ended up getting to the States and taking a Southwest Airlines flight for the last bit of my trip.

I was traveling in my dress uniform and during the flight there was this older gentleman who was serving drinks. 

When he got to me, here is how the conversation progressed:

Older Gentleman: “You want a beer? I’m buying.”

Me: “No, sir. I’m not 21 yet.” 

Older Gentleman: “Well, I’m the CEO of the airline and I think you earned it. Besides, I won’t tell if you don’t.”

Me: “Yes sir, I’ll have that beer, and thank you.”

Herb Kelleher: “Here you go and once I finish, I’m going to come back and we’ll have one together and talk.”

And he did.

Since that chance encounter, I’ve never flown a different airline if Southwest was an option. And, I kept my word and never told anyone … until now.

First of all, I am enormously flattered and touched that you chose MNB as the place to share that story.

It speaks to so much of what we try to talk about here, especially the importance of real leadership, the kind that serves as the ethical foundation of a business’s culture. Herb kelleher didn’t have to buy that beer. Hell, he didn’t even have to be working on that plane. He was the CEO, and most CEOs would believe that they have better things to do.

But Kelleher seemed to understand that there wasn’t anything more important for him to do than make indelible connections with customers and serve as an example to his fellow airline employees … and to all of us, who continue to learn from stories like these. Sometimes, it only took a moment.

I’d be willing to be that there are a lot of stories like Dennis’s being told about Herb Kelleher these days.

I also would suggest that every person in a leadership position read this story and then ask himself or herself, “What story will they tell about me? What will the narrative of my life tell people about my priorities and passions? How do I behave in a way that demonstrates that it isn’t just about profit and market share, but about serving something greater?”

Will the answers to those questions be Eye-Openers?

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