I should have known it all along. My favorite corporate CEO of all time, Herb Kelleher, was a Jersey Boy! I’ll bet he went to Ponzio’s Diner.

Kelleher, the fearless leader of Southwest Airlines, died January 3 at the age of 87. He was born in Haddon Heights, NJ, and worked at the Campbell Soup plant in nearby Camden, where he said once that he’d received “the best education I ever had, better than college, better than law school.” That’s because he said he worked to produce something real – something more than simply paper or words.

There are really just two types of people in this world: reasonable and unreasonable. Reasonable people adapt to the world around them. Unreasonable people make the world adapt to them. Therefore, true progress depends on some people being unreasonable.

Kelleher was a delightfully unreasonable fellow.

“Herb was an Innovator,” says a sweet blog post on Southwest’s website.

Indeed, he was. Striving for Innovator Brand status is crucial to thriving, which Southwest has done for four decades, even during tough economic times for airlines. Most brands are stuck in Status Quo mode.

How do we know Kelleher built an Innovator Brand?

He challenged the status quo from the start. He sketched out a business plan on a cocktail napkin 50 years ago. I love that visual – it’s the same way FedEx was conceived.

Kelleher said: Why compete for fat-cat business travelers? Every airline was doing that. How about we attract new airline travelers? Let’s get folks out of their houses to see other people and places. Let’s get folks out of trains, buses and old cars and onto airplanes for low-cost flights.

He innovated in an industry that is as highly regulated and change-averse as the insurance industry. He embraced change. He kept things simple – and if you look around, your favorite brands are simple and consistent. Southwest’s aim was to keep costs and fares low. One type of aircraft: Boeing 737. Empty and fill planes in 20 minutes, when the industry average is two times that. When you’re in the air for 11 hours a day, you’re making more money than the industry average of eight hours. Who needs seat assignments? Seat assignments cost money. Don’t like our pretzels? Bring your own food on board. We won’t charge for bags or to change your flight. No extra fees. Most airlines – even discounts ones – don’t even bother to emulate most of this.

Innovator Brands lead the pack: Southwest today is the largest U.S. airline with annual revenue of $25 billion.

While he was smart as a whip, and a fierce yet fun negotiator, he was quirky and weird. A character to whom people were drawn. He arm-wrestled with another airline CEO to decide on Southwest’s tagline: “Just plane smart.” He was larger than life. He laughed – very loudly, apparently. He dressed as Elvis and drove a Harley to company outings. He proudly drank Wild Turkey bourbon like water. He chain-smoked cigarettes. According to an employee tribute ad in The Wall Street Journal, he gave “everyone (and we do mean everyone) a kiss on the lips.”

I’m just scratching the surface on Kelleher’s antics.

But most importantly, he focused on culture – building the brand from the inside out. We call that The Power of Four. He insisted on hiring people with a good sense of humor, because he said you could teach people skills, but not attitude. On the busiest travel day of the year, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he often would work alongside baggage handlers. He remembered everybody’s name at Southwest – baggage handlers, flight attendants, pilots, anyone he met. “Herb decided long ago that our internal customers, our employees, would come first,” says the blog post.

Like a good Jersey Boy, he suffered no fools when it came to protecting his peeps.

He once received a letter from a customer complaining about the wisecracking behavior of a Southwest flight attendant on a recent flight: Apparently, she had been singing and making light of FAA’s passenger safety instructions. “How dare she make fun of safety? People should listen to flight instructions, not singing. I won’t fly Southwest again.”

Kelleher mailed back a four-word letter:

“We will miss you.”

We will miss you, too, Herb.



Some 24 years ago, Herb Kelleher said I could have a brand-new 737 to fly around the country – as I had to visit Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York… and even my home city of Fairfax VA.

Well, actually it wasn’t for just me.

Kelleher provided the Southwest jet and crew at no cost for then-Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and supporters to personally thank the many first responders from four cities who had flown in to help victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. It was the Thank You America Tour. In case you might have forgotten, a total of 168 people, including 19 children, were killed, and more than 500 were injured in that blast.

I was fortunate to work at the Big “I” then, and was invited as well, since the association and its Oklahoma affiliate provided funding for victims and the thank-you pins for the first responders. We had a blast on the plane, consuming all of Herb’s booze on the drink carts and chowing down on pizzas waiting for us in the overhead bins. On the ground, we met lots of politicians, including President Bill Clinton, who handed out the pins to the rescue teams.

I would have enjoyed meeting Herb as well.