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Leadership Style at Southwest Airlines -
May 4th, 2011
Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV) is an American airline based in Dallas, Texas. Southwest is the largest airline in the United States, based on domestic passengers carried, as of June 30, 2010. Southwest operates more than 3,400 flights a day, as of March 2011, utilizing a fleet of 690 aircraft.
Southwest is the United States most successful low fare, high frequency, point-to-point carrier. Southwest controls costs through operation of only two aircraft types on high-density routes throughout the United States and offering few traditional airline services including first class seating, airport lounges, reserved seat assignments, and video and audio programing. Southwest claims that it by not offering these services, Southwest can offer lower fares and produce a higher return on invested capital than other airline companies.
Leadership at Southwest Airlines
Leadership at Southwest Airlines plays a paramount role in the success of the company. Before its role is discussed in detail though, a definition of leadership will provide a foundation for the rest of the discussion. The American Heritage Dictionary definition of to "lead" (as a verb) is "to guide, conduct, escort or direct; to influence, induce; to tend toward a certain goal...". As defined by Stephen P. Robbins, leadership is "the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of goals". (Robbins, 138) These definitions, while true in most cases, are implemented very liberally at Southwest Airlines. It is not possible to describe leadership in a definitive manner at Southwest Airlines. Leadership is a way of life, culture, desire, and commitment at Southwest Airlines. Therefore, while these definitions are true, Southwest Airlines gives the word a whole new meaning.
Herb Kelleher, CEO Southwest Airlines
Herb Kelleher is an outrageous, off-the-wall CEO that has built a unique organization and has been extremely successful in a very competitive market. Kelleher has an unorthodox style when compared to CEO's of other major corporations. This style is reflected in his organization's style.
Herb Kelleher's leadership style is the opposite of the many autocratic leaders that have thrived in business for centuries. He does not "rule" over his employees but rather, rules with his employees. Kelleher believes that leadership is the job of every employee, not just upper level management. Kelleher believes that every employee should have the ability to ascertain situations and be able to act on their own decisions. Employees should be able to lead other employees to make decisions.
Kelleher has been noted as saying that "people need to do more inductive reasoning: get out, look around, see things for yourself and experience them..." (Lee, 66). Kelleher does not contend that he is the only visionary at Southwest Airlines. He feels that anyone can make leadership decisions as long as they have experienced the pertinent situation. Kelleher imposes this notion on all of his employees. He leads them to believe that they can be leaders also.
Kelleher's organization, as described by himself, is an upside-down pyramid. At the bottom, are the upper management personnel and at the top are the front line employees. These front line employees are "the ones that make things happen". He considers his front line employees the experts in the organization and top management the support help. The heroes are the front line employees. Kelleher's ability to lead is supported by the leadership offered by all of the employees in the organization.
Kelleher's leadership style, in part, can be related to the current Path-Goal Theory. This theory does not encompass Kelleher's style, but a few similarities are evident. Within Path-Goal Theory, there are four defined leadership behaviors. Two of them, supportive and participative, describe Kelleher's style. A supportive leader is a friendly leader and shows a genuine concern for the work-related and personal needs of his/her subordinates. The participative leader consults with his/her subordinates and utilizes their suggestions before making decisions. Kelleher practices both of these behaviors daily. He develops a personal relationship with as many of Southwest's employees as possible. At the very least, he knows their name. He becomes more than just their boss, he becomes a friend. Also, in dealing with all decision making, Kelleher uses the information provided by his employees emphatically before making a decision. He feels that the employees actually dealing with the problem would have a much better idea of how to handle it than most upper management would.
Lastly, Kelleher can be described as being a charismatic leader. A charismatic leader inspires people to place the needs of their company as high as their personal needs and has an extraordinary effect on his/her followers. Charismatic leaders are extremely self-confident, have visions of the future and behave in extraordinary ways. Kelleher exemplifies these qualities. His self confidence shows in his ability to take chances in changing the face of the airline industry. His vision of the airline industry has become a reality over the last decade and will continue into the future. Lastly, his energetic and playful behavior has drawn people to love him.
The many different leadership qualities Herb Kelleher possesses influence Southwest Airlines in many different ways. The next section will discuss how leadership is used throughout the organization.
Leadership at Southwest Airlines
Leadership is considered the spark that has ignited this organization to achieve the great things that it has. See Appendix A for Southwest's profitability. The author of Nuts! (a book written describing Southwest's accomplishments), Freiberg, states that at "Southwest Airlines there exists a spirit of liberty and freedom that encourages people to use their imagination, express their individuality, and exercise leadership." (Freiberg, 298) Leadership is a force of motivation for the employees. People are motivated to use their leadership qualities to better the company.
At Southwest Airlines, leadership is not considered to exist in one person, instead it is embedded in all employees. In traditional views of leadership, an emphasis was always put on an individual. Southwest Airlines does not have an individual leader. Kelleher states that he is no more a leader than anybody else in the organization. To accomplish what has been accomplished at Southwest Airlines, many leaders are needed in numerous different areas.
Leadership is not a position of authority at Southwest Airlines. Leadership is based on a mutual influence among the employees. It is not determined by a certain title or position held. Titles are believed to have a smothering effect on people at Southwest Airlines. Titles do not allow freedom to think and also causes employees to act too cautious and analytical. Leadership helps people envision a better future and then participate in the development of that vision.
Expanding the scope of influence in an organization is an important quality of leadership. There are a few ways in which an individual can achieve this at Southwest Airlines. The individual must have integrity. Southwest Airlines employees must do what they say they are going to do and be truthful in the way they do it. This notion of integrity is embedded in every employee and facilitates mutual leadership. Secondly, employees must focus on things they can control. Many employees can solve problems quickly because they focus on issues that they have direct control over. Thirdly, caring for co-workers facilitates influence. An old cliché sums this up best; "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care". Lastly, listening to all employee ideas facilitates leadership. Once employees feel that they have been heard by co-workers, they will be more willing to listen to ideas from others. A characteristic of leadership at Southwest Airlines is the ability to be led. Mutual leadership creates a strong bond among individuals striving to attain the same goals.
The book, Servant Leadership, written by Robert Greenleaf discusses the notion that the inherent act of leadership is derived from the initial desire to serve others first. He notes that most people desire leadership because they feel obligated to serve a purpose larger than themselves. Along with the choice to serve people first comes a large sacrifice of your own personal needs. At Southwest Airlines, employees work extremely hard, long hours. Upper management and front line employees work ten to twelve hour days regularly. Greenleaf believes that this servanthood sets people free. He feels that it allows all employees the ability to tackle any problem. The employees are also willing to do anything themselves that they would ask others to do. This spirit thrives at Southwest Airlines.
The many different faces of leadership discussed thus far play an important role in the motivation of Southwest Airlines' employees. The employees see problems they personally solve and gain a sense of self respect from these. The relationships and mutual trust developed with each other give them a sense of happiness at work. They are proud to work for a company that considers them people instead of baggage handlers, flight attendants or pilots. They take pride in their company's fight to win market share in the tough airline industry. The role of leadership at Southwest Airlines is to protect these sources of motivation and use them to energize employees on a continual basis.
Leadership at Southwest Airlines is a world away from the simplistic definitions listed previously. It has taken on a role so strong that it could be the one reason why the airline has succeeded the way it has. A final quote from an anonymous employee summarizes how leadership has motivated the employees at Southwest Airlines. "To know that our work matters, that our labor counts for something, is to know that we count."