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Leadership is simple. (Review).

* It's So Simple, video, 2001, 15 min., Charthouse Learning (800-328-3789,, purchase $737. Other material: leader guide.

Long before September 11, the airline industry had big problems. Profits fluctuated, service quality declined, and labor relations were terrible. In this perpetually troubled industry, one company thrived. In some ways, it didn't even seem to belong in the industry because it was so different: profitable year in and year out, renown for its service, and considered a family by unionized workers and management.

Southwest Airlines' success has been "explained" in analytical terms as a shrewd business model paired with a smart operating strategy. Southwest is the Wal-Mart of the airline industry. It avoids large, congested, and competitive airports for smaller ones. It flies only one kind of aircraft, lowering maintenance, training, and scheduling costs. It's a no-frills, low-fare airline that puts on happy-face customer service and delivers on-time performance because its route structure allows it to.

The analysis begs the question, If success lies in these objective categories, why can't anyone else duplicate it? Wal-Mart's sheer size and financial clout protect it from imitators, but Southwest has nothing like those advantages in the fractious airline industry. Yet, it has no imitators. What's going on here?

The video It's So Simple tells Southwest's story differently than it's been told in the past. Of course, you meet Herb Kelleher, the former CEO, the anti-Jack Welch, and one of the most quoted individuals in American business. People looking beyond the business model see him as the root of success. He's the brilliant teddy bear who defines strategy and the operational system, walks around endlessly, and hugs everyone in sight.

Energetic as he is, Herb can't be everywhere at once. He can't turn the planes faster than any other airline all by himself. One of the hard-to-see success factors in this company is leadership that isn't reducible to Herb or his outgoing personality. Yes, it has to start at the top. But when there are 30,000 employees and operations scattered all over the country, good leadership has to be exercised every day by thousands of people.

This video, a scant 15 minutes long, doesn't show you leadership at Southwest. It can't. Showing leadership would require hours of video capturing the many little things people are doing everywhere in the company to keep things running smoothly.

It can show the leadership values and optimism that characterize the Southwest way. Kelleher says, "We have always felt that a company is much stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear," The statement defines the company's leadership philosophy. The company calls its employees their first customer; the main function of leadership is to serve employees. To do that a leader has to be dedicated to others, not to the polishing of his or her ego.

Here is one example of how seriously the company takes the philosophy. Colleen Barrett, formerly head of human resources, is now president of the company. How often does that happen in other companies? An HR person made president? And a woman?

Leadership begins with hiring. Barrett says, "We hire for attitude, train for skill. "That's the reverse of most company's hiring agenda. Southwest hires a small percentage of job applicants because it's serious about taking on only people who like to serve other people and who are committed to working in teams. Two things make the hiring policy work: Southwest thoroughly vets candidates and provides excellent training.

Management works relentlessly to ensure that employees have the skills needed to perform their jobs at a high level and feel respected. The theory is that if you serve your employees well, they will serve customers well.

How far will this company go for its employees? An employee had his house flattened by a tornado that sent both him and his wife to the hospital. The next morning Southwest sent a group of 10 employees, all volunteers, in company vans to salvage the couples' belongs. Southwest helped them out financially, and streams of employees visited them in the hospital. As the man describes the events on camera, he tears up.

The company stresses two other complementary values: a focus on group success and freedom. A focus on the group means individuals will do what needs to be done and won't allow such factors as job boundaries to get in the way. Pilots will help load baggage if needed. An agent at a quiet gate will leap into the fray at a busy one to clear passengers. Freedom in this case means a broad latitude to do the job in the way employees think will lead to the best results for the company.

In the end, leadership is making everyone a leader. It's So Simple contains a wonderful vignette illustrating how unfathomable this idea is to the conventionally minded. In a presentation to analysts, Herb Kelleher described how the company operated. One of the audience asked almost accusingly, "How do you keep control?" Herb replied, "Never had control, don't want control!"

Charthouse, the producer of the video, has a signature production style that all came together in the wildly successful video Fish! The style is spirited documentary: location shots only, fast action with lots of cuts, comic visual effects, upbeat contemporary music (no synthesizer "music" here). The camera follows the Southwest creed; it doesn't linger on the big shots. And the host-narrator is Matt Bally, a Southwest employee who should think about an on-camera career -- he's that good.

The producer and the development team should be applauded for the leader guide. It's well written and produced. It has much background material, a plan for a 60-90 minute session, and sections that show how to train on six different topics relevant to the video material.

The odd price of $737 is an inside joke: the airline only flies Boeing 737s. But it won't be funny to some buyers, given the video's length.


It's So Simple should be a breath of fresh air in many organizations. Leadership at Southwest Airlines is simple, but it's not easy because it requires a major shift in conventional thinking. We don't have to remind anyone that changing leadership and culture is no easy task, and the folks at the top need to be ready to change too. If there is openness from top to bottom or if your business unit is fairly autonomous, this 15-minute video could be just the kickoff you need. The high price relative to length could be a problem for some potential customers, however.

Bill Ellet is editor of Training Media Review.
COPYRIGHT 2002 TMR Publications
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Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ellet, Bill
Publication:Training Media Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Previous Article:Paradigms, the sequel. (Review).
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