Flying High with Herb Kelleher: A Profile in Charismatic Leadership

By Gibson, Jane Whitney; Blackwell, Charles W. | Journal of Leadership Studies, Summer-Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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Flying High with Herb Kelleher: A Profile in Charismatic Leadership

Gibson, Jane Whitney, Blackwell, Charles W., Journal of Leadership Studies

Executive Summary

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.

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Flying High with Herb Kelleher: A Profile in Charismatic Leadership


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