Culture Really Matters, or Yes, We Can Learn a Lot From Watching Southwest

© Carlos Santa Maria -
© Carlos Santa Maria -

It’s hard to say anything surprising or different about Southwest Airlines. It’s been a wildly successful business for decades, and it operates in a sector were virtually all of its major competitors have struggled mightily to stay afloat and make any profit at all.

And there’s a good reason for this, as Micah Solomon pointed out this week in The Washington Postit’s because Southwest has a consciously developed customer-centered culture as a business advantage.

If it sounds simple, it’s not, because as Solomon notes, culture really does matter when it comes to building a business, and all-too-few executives today seem to understand this. As he wrote in The Post:

This is why someone leading a business today — preparing a bright future for your organization and perhaps for the world — needs to focus not just on nuts and bolts, techniques and standards, but on culture.

Without a consciously created culture, your leadership won’t last beyond the moment you leave the building. Any vacation — or even lunch break — you take is an invitation for disaster: The inevitable complaint I hear from consulting clients and at my engagements as a speaker is this: “Employees act differently when there aren’t any managers around.” But with a great company culture, employees will be motivated, regardless of management’s presence or absence.”

A “treat people right” philosophy

He goes on to list a number of ways you can start leading your business by focusing on culture, and it’s a laundry list of insights that every manager, executive, and HR professional needs to print out and tack on the wall next to their desk.

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At the core of Southwest’s culture is a “treat people right” philosophy that legendary CEO Herb Kelleher preached from the time he took over as head of the airline. As I wrote about it a few years back:

Treat people right. This sounds deceptively simple, but I am amazed at how few businesses and managers actually practice it. I reflected on it a few weeks ago when Herb Kelleher finally stepped down as chairman of Southwest Airlines. “You have to treat your employees like customers,” Kelleher would always say. “When you treat them right, then they will treat your outside customers right. That has been a powerful competitive weapon for us. … Our people know that if they are sick, we will take care of them. If there are occasions of grief or joy, we will be there with them. They know that we value them as people, not just cogs in a machine.”

We can all learn a lot from looking at how Southwest Airlines has built and maintained its corporate culture. And that”s why this Washington Post article is worth taking a good look at, because it has something for everyone when it comes to great advice to help you manage your workforce.

For more of this article, click here. 

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


4 Comments on “Culture Really Matters, or Yes, We Can Learn a Lot From Watching Southwest

  1. Can you have other cultures? I see writings in culture like this that indicate that having a consciously-created culture is important but then discuss just one kind of culture, the valuing-our-employees kind. Can a consciously created, theory X, driving, competitive, only-the-strong-survive culture also matter?

    1. I think you probably can have a different type of culture, but the focus on a people-driven one is usually the norm (in Southwest, or JetBlue) since a) people are the biggest cost component for most organizations; and b) most companies don’t focus on how to better leverage what is their biggest cost. Or to put it more simply, biggest cost = biggest potential for largest return on investment.

      Lost of organizations like to say that “people are our most important resource,” but in most cases, this is simply lip service. Who would ever say something like, “we really don’t care all that much about our people, and if they leave, who cares?” NO one says that, but in reality, that’s what all-too-many companies do. 


  2. Quite right! Southwest is an extraordinary airline success story and the way Herb Kelleher led his people is key to its success. There are two other factors that also made the difference. 
    1. Southwest have alway kept it (everything) as simple as possible, one fleet, minimal catering (saves cleaning costs and time), minimal interlining, etc etc. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity removing service tangibles enables people to focus on real service,  i.e. relating with people.  
    2. Utilisation. Southwest’s key strategic resource is the revenue seat/mile, which is a function of the number of seats on the aircraft times the miles it flies, which itself is the function of the length of its flights and how quickly you can turn the aircraft round flying again. When you fly many hours by quick turnrounds and good scheduling you get low costs that drive low prices that you lower further by filling most of the seats in a virtuous circle. 
    Southwest, under Kelleher’s leadership, has done these three things together  intermingling ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures in ways hat any firm could do, but only a tiny number of firms do. I wonder why that is? 

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