Herb Kelleher, co-founder, CEO, President and Chairman of Southwest Airlines is cited in this article as an ideal example of charismatic leadership at its best. A discussion of charismatic leadership focuses on traits and behaviors of charismatic leaders. This model is then used to examine Kelleher's traits and behaviors at Southwest Airlines, named in 1998 as the best place to work in America by Fortune Magazine. Kelleher's vision and style are seen as the driving forces of this maverick airline which has consistently posted a profit for 26 consecutive years and does things differently than any other company in the industry. The key to Southwest's success is largely thought to be the warmth and determination of its employees who mirror those same qualities in their leader. The article includes Kelleher's thoughts on leadership and concludes that there is reason to question whether the strong, personality-driven Southwest culture can survive after Kelleher retires from the helm.
"Energizer bunny of the skies" (Jones, 1994), "America's funniest flyboy" (Beddington & Loftus, 1998), "Captain Marvel" (Welles, 1992), these are just some of the terms used to describe the CEO, President, and Chairman of the Board of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher. Since his involvement in the founding of Southwest Airlines in 1967, Herb Kelleher has almost assumed cult status with his much publicized shenanigans like dressing up as Elvis or arm-wrestling a competitor for rights to the slogan, "Just Plane Smart." (Hassell & Walsh, 1999.) This article examines what is known about Kelleher and specifically his leadership style. It posits that Kelleher is an ideal example of a charismatic leader who has avoided the controversial and ethical dilemmas of charisma (see Gibson, Hannon, & Blackwell, (1998) and focused his energy and enthusiasm instead on the growth of a highly successful airline. Even more, Kelleher has dedicated himself to building a culture that puts employees, not customers first. Kelleher's logic is simple:
Years ago, business gurus used to apply the business school conundrum to me: "Who comes first? Your shareholders, your employees, or your customers?" I said, "Well, that's easy," but my response was heresy at that time. I said employees come first and if employees are treated right, they treat the outside world right, the outside world uses the company's product again, and that makes the shareholders happy. That really is the way that it works and it's not a conundrum at all. (Kelleher, 1998, 76).
Recently, Kelleher has been in the news because of his just-diagnosed prostate cancer. Announcing that he would be flying from corporate headquarters in Dallas to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for daily radiation treatment, Kelleher assured the public that work would continue as usual and that his medical problem was just a temporary setback. With a survival rate on early diagnoses of over 80%, Andrew von Eschenbach, head of MD Anderson's prostate cancer unit, had this to say about Kelleher's future.
We are taking the appropriate and medically indicated steps in the expectation that Herb will continue to lead a fully active and productive life, just as if he never had prostate cancer. (Woodyard, 1999)
The paper begins with a look back at the early life of Herb Kelleher.
Who Is Herb Kelleher?
Who is this person named 1999 Chief Executive of the Year by Chief Executive Magazine? (Anonymous, 1999) Herb Kelleher was born on March 12, 1931 near Camden, New Jersey. Graduating from Haddon Heights High School where he distinguished himself as an athlete and student body president, Kelleher's first job was at Campbell Soup Company where he worked for six summers, joining his dad who was General Manager. (Labich, 1994) While at Campbell, Kelleher was a soup chef, warehouse foreman, and part-time financial analyst. (Adair, 1995).
Kelleher attended Wesleyan University where he earned a BA in English literature before deciding to go to NYU law school. There he made Law Review and lived in Greenwich Village until he completed his LL.B. Always one for a good time, Kelleher says of his time in the Village:
I had a little apartment on Washington Square and you could just open your door and entertaining people would walk in and you would have an instant party. (Labich, 1994)
Kelleher began his law career clerking for a N. J. Supreme Court justice before joining a law firm in Newark, New Jersey. Having married a girl from Texas whom he had met in school, Kelleher soon decided that the opportunities in San Antonio were too good to be missed, so he moved to Texas in the mid 60s. (Lee, 1995).
It was there that Southwest Airlines founder, Rollin King, hired Kelleher as outside counsel in 1966. What happened next is the beginning of the Southwest legend and gets right to the heart of a charismatic's vision formulation. Before continuing, however, a definition is provided of charisma as well as a discussion of the traits and behaviors of charismatic leaders. This will provide the model against which the Herb Kelleher story will be reflected.
The Charismatic Leader
In the last 20 years, there have been a plethora of books and articles written about charismatic leadership. Some of the representative book titles include Charisma: Seven Keys to Developing the Magnetism That Leads to Success (Alessandra & Alessandra, 1998), Charisma and Leadership in Organizations (Bryman, 1992), Charismatic Leadership in Organizations (Conger & Kanungo, 1998), Personal Magnetism: Discover Your Own Charisma and Learn to Charm, Inspire and Influence Others (Dubrin, 1997), Charisma: How to Get That Special Magic (Grad, 1986), Going Public: A Practical Guide to Developing Personal Charisma (Meton, 1995), and The Charisma Quotient (Riggio, 1987). Articles by Bass (1996), Behling & McFillen (1996), Conger, Kanungo, Menon, & Mathur (1997), House, (1977, 1992), House & Howell (1992), Howell & Aviolo (1992), and Popper & Zakkai (1994) typify the periodical literature on the subject.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines charisma as "a rare, personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm" and stresses that charisma implies a power to win the devotion of large numbers of people. The term charisma was used by the early Christian church and may be traced back to an ancient Greek word meaning "gift." As used by the church, charisma meant "gifts from God that allowed receivers to carry out extraordinary feats such as healing or prophecy." (Conger, Kanungo, Menon & Mathur, 1997, p. 291).
Max Weber was an early contributor to the study of charisma when he described three types of authority: rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic, the latter being a type of authority based on the force of one's personality. (Wren, 1994, p. 195) It was not until the 1970s and 1980s, however, that the forces of global competition forced attention on the role of leaders in causing needed change.
As it turned out, the disciplines of organizational behavior and organizational psychology played a pivotal role in this transformation process. By zeroing in on leaders as change agents these disciplines found that corporate leaders with high levels of motivation, vision, and innovativeness were particularly …