A Leadership Lesson: Stay Out of the Way When Things Are Going Well

I’m continuing a series of lessons learned from top executives with brilliant insights from Herb Kelleher, founder and chairman emeritus of Southwest Airlines (featured in this Fortune cover story).

The Foundation of Leadership: Get out of their way

Trust your employees. You hired them for their skills, knowledge and talents. Unless they need you, get out of their way and let them do what they do best.

“Be there when [employees are] having problems, and stay out of their way when things are going well.”

Pay attention to your people – and never stop

Companies of any size can put their people first. This dynamic shouldn’t change as the organization grows. It may require more commitment, but it can be done. And, just like working on employee engagement, you’re never done.

The concept is simple, but the execution takes a lot of work and a lot of attention. If you’re going to pay personal attention to each of your people, for instance, and every grief and every joy that they suffer in their lives, you really have to have a tremendous network for gathering information.

We want to show them they’re important to us as who they are, as people… It’s not formulaic. The way I describe it is this huge mosaic that you’re always adding little pieces to make it work. And it’s not a job that you do for six months and then you just say, ‘Well, that’s behind us.’ It’s something you do every day.”

Culture trumps strategy

It doesn’t matter what your strategy is if you’re people cannot, will not, or don’t know how to accomplish that strategy.

Some people will say, ‘Well, this is not a strategy,’ because they like the word ‘strategy.’ You know, it sounds important, like the Strategic Air Command. And I’d say, ‘Well, here’s how I differentiate.’ I think it was Tolstoy, if I remember correctly, who said, ‘How does Napoleon march onto a balcony in France and get a whole bunch of French troops to march into Russia to their death?’ And I said, ‘Well, the strategy involved was his imperial ambitions, right? But what made the troops march? The culture.’ And I said, ‘It’s the troops marching that defines the culture.’”

Core values drive expediency & efficiency

Business in the 21st century is driven by speed and efficiency – the ability to react quickly to rapid change in the marketplace and in the world. Having a clear, concise set of core values helps you make those necessary decisions more quickly.

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I’ve always thought that having a simple set of values for a company was also a very efficient and expedient way to go. And I’ll tell you why. Because if somebody makes a proposal and it infringes on those values, you don’t study it for two years. You just say, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ And you go on quickly. So I think that contributes to efficiency.”

What are the driving factors in your organization? Your people? Your values? Your culture? What moves your business forward?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.


10 Comments on “A Leadership Lesson: Stay Out of the Way When Things Are Going Well

  1. Leaders convey the purpose of their organization so that every person can understand how their effort contributes to the organization’s success. And when the leaders ask for sacrifice, every person can understand why it is necessary that they contribute on behalf of the organization. And when success comes, the leaders share appropriately and proportionally with everyone who contributed.

  2. To Lou Polur, Yes, in a perfect world. The truth is that the ones who contribute the most are on the bottom of the pay scale and are deliberately overlooked in favor of family members with no skills, brown nosers with no morals, and greed mongers who would sell you out in a heart beat if it means a raise or a promotion. This is why I am looking for another job. I don’t expect things to change that much, just need to be recognized for my experience and perfect record as a professional driver, accomplished manufacturing technician who has developed ISO manuals for companies who refused to see the light, and a self taught, college trained audio engineer with talent and proven results. It takes 20 to 30 years to be as good as I am, and I’ve worked my butt off to prove the point, and what do I end up doing? construction. Lame! I have earned the right to demand good pay for my skill level, not 8.50 per hour, however the average employer will hire some shmuck rather than invest in talent and experience.
    I don’t mean to offend you, or anyone else and I apologize if I have.

    William L. Huntsman

    1. William I have to agree with you on a number of points. The truly great organizations are those that recognize the worth of each of their employees and compensate them as they deserve. You will find a very important common thread in these organizations – exemplary leadership from the top down. If the leader has surrounded himself/herself with worshipers and encourages unethical competitiveness to reach their goals then you are left with an organization where most people punch a clock and/or are just passing through. I saw this from time to time in my Military career, and far too often in my civilian employment. Good-luck with your search, and where possible find out what the leadership is like.


  3. Mr. Kelleher says, “The concept is simple, but the execution takes a lot of work.” True. But it’s still far, far less work than how most do it. For a cartoon illustrating this point: skills2.com/blog/428

  4. I LOVE HERB! Since Southwest Airline is based in my hometown I have seen him and heard him speak firsthand. Also Libby Sartain was his sidekick in HR. Together they formed an awesome team.
    But Herb is a star. Wish we could clone him. Wish he would spend some of his time now on speaking to CEO groups/organizations. CEOs listen to each other and other business people —- not so much to HR people. Herb would have more credibility.
    He is my hero!!!

  5. Please allow me to add: Do not change something that goes well, just improve it if it is necessary. Sincerely yours, Iulius

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