Leadership, Southwest Airlines, and Malice in Dallas

Note: If you have trouble viewing the video, you can watch it on YouTube.

This is a hilarious video (watch his aerobic workouts) produced by Southwest Airlines for its Employees about “Malice in Dallas,” the legendary charity arm wrestling match between “Smokin'” (he was literally smoking and curling Wild Turkey liquor) Herb Kelleher and Stevens Aviation’s “Kurtsey” or “Killer” Kurt Herwald to settle a dispute over Southwest’s “Just Plane Smart” slogan. The match was held on March 20, 1992 at the now-demolished Dallas Sportatorium. In this video, Herb’s and Herwald’s training regimens are detailed.

This classic video and the “Malice in Dallas” story epitomize leadership that is genuine and personal. The video’s humor mirrors the same zany quality of Herb himself and, in my opinion, is what made him such a magnetic leader. I could not stop laughing watching his workouts.

Below is a short article I wrote two months ago. I wrote it because I was curious about Southwest Airlines and about Herb Kelleher. I also wanted to research and write about Southwest Airlines because its headquarter is in Dallas, Texas and I’m from Dallas. Most of all, it gave me a sense of pride to learn more about a well-respected company in my own hometown.

Overview: Leadership at Southwest Airlines

The co-founder of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher (now Chairman Emeritus), led Southwest Airlines to success. Beneath his fun-loving persona is a hard-working, empathetic and determined leader.

Significance

Southwest Airlines is remarkable because it is the only airline to maintain a profit every year for 31 years. In “The Southwest Airlines Way,” Jody Gittell says this record is unparalleled in the airline industry.

Leadership Style

Kelleher’s hands-on leadership style earned him the respect and admiration of employees, according to the book “Essentials of Management.” He made people feel important by remembering their names and sending out birthday cards. In “Lasting Leadership,” Peter Cappelli, a management professor, says that Kelleher was great at boosting employee morale, an ability that’s rare in a top executive.

Misconceptions

Although known for his crazy antics, like appearing in public dressed as Elvis and the Easter Bunny, Kelleher is “as regimented and determined as an army general,” one who is competitive and “deadly serious about success,” states “Essentials of Management.”

Fun Fact

The authors of “Entrepreneurs, Managers, and Leaders” tell an amusing story about 63-year-old Kelleher arm-wrestling with 38-year-old Kurt Herwald (in the “Malice in Dallas” arm-wrestling match), the weightlifting CEO of an aircraft maintenance company. They were battling for the rights to use the slogan, “Plane Smart.” After his defeat, Kelleher joked that had it not been for his wrist fracture, cold and athlete’s feet, he would have won.

[“NUTS! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success,” by Drs. Kevin & Jackie Freiberg, has a detailed account of the arm-wrestling match. You can also read the “Malice in Dallas” story on the Freibergs’ website.]

Expert Insight

In “Lasting Leadership,” Mukul Pandya and Robbie Shell attribute Southwest Airlines’ success to Kelleher and his belief that, “employees come first [and] that a company with happy and productive workers will have happy, paying customers.” As Kelleher said, “You can buy an airplane and a terminal, but you can’t buy the spirit of the people.”

References

  • “Entrepreneurs, Managers, and Leaders: What the Airline Industry Can Teach Us about Leadership”; Anthony J. Mayo, Nitin Nohria and Mark Rennella; 2009
  • “Essentials of Management: An International Perspective”; Harold Koontz and Heinz Weihrich; 2008
  • “Lasting Leadership: What You Can Learn from the 25 Most Influential Business People of Our Times”; Mukul Pandya and Robbie Shell; 2005
  • “Fortune” magazine: “Is Herb Kelleher America’s Best CEO? Behind his Clowning is a People-wise Manager Who Wins Where Others Can’t”; Kenneth Labich and Ani Hadjian; May 2, 1994
  • “The Southwest Airlines Way: Using the Power of Relationships to Achieve High Performance”; Jody H. Gittell; 2003
  • “NUTS! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success”; Drs. Kevin & Jackie Freiberg; 1996