Wisdom from Corporate Culture Guru Herb Kelleher


Herb Kelleher was the Co-founder and former CEO/Chairman of Southwest Airlines. He was widely recognized as one of the very best CEO's in America, and known for his views and wisdom on the importance of corporate culture.

  • “Leading an organization is as much about soul as it is about systems. Effective leadership finds its source in understanding.”

  • “Treat your employees like customers.”

  • “It takes nerves of steel to stay neurotic.”

  • “Think small and act small, and we’ll get bigger. Think big and act big, and we’ll get smaller.”

  • “I’ve always been able to make erroneous decisions very quickly.”

  • “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.”

  • “You must be very patient, very persistent. The world isn’t going to shower gold coins on you just because you have a good idea. You’re going to have to work like crazy to bring that idea to the attention of people. They’re not going to buy it unless they know about it.”

  • “Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that.”

  • “You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.”

  • “If you create an environment where the people truly participate, you don’t need control. They know what needs to be done and they do it. And the more that people will devote themselves to your cause on a voluntary basis, a willing basis, the fewer hierarchies and control mechanisms you need.”

  • “If you’re crazy enough to do what you love for a living, then you’re bound to create a life that matters.”

  • “The core of our success. That’s the most difficult thing for a competitor to imitate. They can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty—the feeling that you are participating in a crusade.”

  • “I’ve found that many of the greatest ideas surface in bars because that’s where many people cultivate inspiration.”

  • “If the employees come first, then they’re happy. A motivated employee treats the customer well. The customer is happy so they keep coming back, which pleases the shareholders. It’s not one of the enduring green mysteries of all time, it is just the way it works.”

  • Power should be reserved for weightlifting and boats, and leadership really involves responsibility.”

  • “If the Wright brother were alive today Wilbur would have to fire Orville to reduce costs.”

  • “I learned it by doing it, and I was scared to death.”

  • “When someone comes to me with a cost saving idea, I don’t immediately jump up and say yes. I ask: what’s the effect on the customer?”

  • “The essential difference in service is not machines or ‘things.’ The essential difference is minds, hearts, spirits, and souls.”

  • “I think my greatest moment in business was when the first Southwest airplane arrived after four years of litigation and I walked up to it and I kissed that baby on the lips and I cried.”

  • “You can’t really be disciplined in what you do unless you are humble and open-minded. Humility breeds open-mindedness—and really, what we try to do is establish a clear and simple set of values that we understand. That simplifies things; that expedites things. It enables the extreme discipline I mentioned in describing our strategy. When an issue comes up, we don’t say we’re going to study it for two and a half years. We just say, ‘Southwest Airlines doesn’t do that. Maybe somebody else does, but we don’t.’ It greatly facilitates the operation of the company.”

  • “The people of Southwest have always been my pride, my joy and my love. Their indomitable dedication and esprit de corps have taken Southwest from a three-airplane dream to a 500-airplane reality.”

  • “If employees aren’t satisfied, they won’t promote the product we need.”

  • “It’s all hands on deck; the ship is being shelled.”

  • “We will hire someone with less experience, less education, and less expertise, than someone who has more of those things and has a rotten attitude. Because we can train people. We can teach people how to lead. We can teach people how to provide customer service. But we can’t change their DNA.”