IT IS most encouraging to hear great plaudits written about a business leader who did things differently. Herb Kelleher, who co-founded, built and ran Southwest Airlines for more than three decades, passed on Jan. 3.
He changed the airline business in our country and, arguably, in the world. A lawyer by training, this leader determined his new airline would make air travel affordable to substantially more travelers than had before been possible. And he did so at a profit every year of the airline’s existence, in a business known for big swings from profitability to losses year-to-year.
The motivational tone in an organization is typically set by top management. One of the leading management theorists of the last century, the late Dr. Peter Drucker, put it this way in an address at a prominent business school: “The eagerness of people in interesting jobs … to retire, is an indictment of today’s management. We must provide an environment in which people want to work.”
This is not easily done, perhaps because doing so requires humility, a rare commodity, it seems, in the corner office. This posture contrasts sharply with the bold proclamations made by a newly-appointed CEO at a major computer maker who warned “Our (employees) need to start worrying more!” Another example was that of a CEO whose conglomerate had just taken over a legendary company, and stated “As of today, you have no history with this firm.” (One of those present at the introductory company-wide video broadcast had devoted 30 years of his career to helping build this industry-leading organization and was a leader in his field.)
By contrast, Herb Kelleher was a CEO who put employees first. When asked what he felt was his proudest achievement, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, he said it was job security for his employees: He never furloughed a single worker. A testimony to his being valued by employees and retirees appeared in a full-page ad in that same paper, shortly after his death. Among the accolades were: “Thanks for always remembering our names … For always being there … For being both the hardest worker and the life of the party. And for turning a Company into a Family.”
Superstar CEOs are rare and hard to replicate, and might possess traits beyond the reach of many individuals. Yet, Herb Kelleher personified what state-of-the-science research in the psychology of intrinsic motivation has discovered. Namely, that successful managers satisfy the need for:
• Autonomy, or experiencing ownership of one’s job. (He let employees sing and tell jokes over the intercom, if that was their talent.)
• Competence, or succeeding at optimally challenging tasks. (He encouraged employees to figure out how to solve problems.)
• Relatedness, or feeling connected. (He put employees first, remembering their birthdays and commiserating with their sorrows.)
Perhaps you have had the experience of working for an individual like this, who satisfied these needs. I recall several individuals throughout my career in the corporate world who seemed to be intuitive motivators. I also had the privilege of observing CEOs of major organizations, with whom I served in different capacities, who had distinctively positive motivational leadership skills. Rather than view their power as something to use to control subordinates, they channeled it into a source for extending more opportunities and resources to those under their influence. People followed them, enthusiastically. No wonder.
When people enjoy their work, it spills over to colleagues, as well as customers. Gratitude toward their employers is a natural outcome, as the testimonies to the late Herb Kelleher, chairman emeritus of Southwest Airlines, demonstrate. No doubt, there are many lessons to be gleaned from his legacy of motivational management.