Simon Sinek is Right About Southwest Airlines – Here’s My Experience


At the recent Melbourne “Start With Why” Conference Simon Sinek spoke glowingly about Southwest Airlines approach to people before profit and 3 Years Ago I wanted to see if the Hype was Real……………’s a Post I first wrote in 2015

Herb Kelleher the Founder of Southwest Airlines once said “the core of the company’s success is the most difficult thing for a competitor to imitate. They can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty—the feeling that you are participating in a crusade,”

Southwest Airlines is a company that continually states that its first responsibility is to its people. They believe strongly that by serving the people well as a starting point will flow on to serving the customers well and then ultimately result in business benefits to the stakeholders. In the past 40 years it has made record profits, paid the employees generously compared with industry standards and have rarely laid any staff off over that period.

Notice something about the order here?

Employees – Customers – Stakeholders

The common language that comes from the traditional organization is that we need to deliver a return to the stakeholder or shareholders. We must treat the customer as our No1 priority. Without customers we wouldn’t be here. Where is the employee in all of this? Usually on an organizational chart as an “employee number”.

So it might look like:

Stakeholders/Shareholders – Customers – Employees

Simon Sinek in Leaders Eat Last states that one of the shortcomings of using numbers to represent people is that:

“numbers lose their connection to people and become just numbers, void of meaning”.

A person without meaning to an organization becomes merely an overhead, part of a cost line and most likely indispensable when the shareholder returns are not acceptable and there’s a need for a quick rebalancing of the balance sheet. This I would argue is not what it is to be human.

Imagine for a moment if the same rules were applied in the environment of the family. I had this exact conversation with my family not too long back. Having taken a redundancy recently (yes my second one and yes my behavior was very different to the first one) I said to Allison, Sam, Amy and Zoe the following:

Having set up my own practice now with what I term the “redundancy runway”; I have a small window to establish myself in a regular cycle of paid work. It’s a tough market with plenty of competition and I will need to work hard to become self sufficient. Lets say for instance that I have about an 8 month window to transition from no earnings to an acceptable level to pay the mortgage and other major bills; and have a nice holiday each year.

Come month 6 and the work isn’t coming in, would I simply draw up a new family organizational chart and advise Sam (my eldest at 21) that due to financial challenges I had made the decision to “let him go” (I’m sure most of you would know that children stay at home a little longer these days). This would give me a short-term relief from the challenges and lengthen the runway. Sounds a little inhumane when reflected as a family unit.

Well it’s basically what happens in most organisations when they hit a “rough patch” or “shareholder requirements” are not being met and no-one blinks an eye. At the same time the employees are asked to do “more with less” which usually means two or three jobs and feel thankful that they have made it through the first wave of cutbacks. Remember they’re just a number.

Back to the Southwest Airlines story:

In the mid part of 2014 I spent an amazing 4 weeks with my youngest daughter Zoe on a “Dad and Daughter” adventure through Canada and The USA. We were travelling to places such as Vancouver, then via the Rocky Mountaineer to Banff, New York City, Washington DC, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. A great chance to get to see some beautiful places and most importantly spend some time getting to “hang out” together and know a little more about each other.

My wife Allison who is a practicing accountant and a part owner of a small practice; also spends time on her other passion as a “travel planner and consultant” and planned the most amazing trip for Zoe and I. My one request was that I wanted to fly Southwest Airlines at some point in time to find out for myself it is was really true about how their employees genuinely seemed happy and proud to be part of the organization; and secondly did this flow onto the customers as part of their service.

The answer was ABSOLUTELY YES.

From the check in, boarding process and cabin service I witnessed the most amazingly happy employees and the best customer service to go with this. Make no mistake – they were genuinely happy, always looking to serve those in their care and very respectful and united as a part of the Southwest team. So much so that midway through the flight from Baltimore to Nashville I took the opportunity to go online and write a note to the HR team on my insistence to fly and “test out the hype” and the amazing experience I had. Apparently another 43,000 customers who experience the Southwest Airlines way do the same thing each year

So could it actually be true that by not only stating but more importantly living the idea that putting the people under their care as their first responsibility Southwest Airlines have “cracked the nut” and reversed the order with spectacular results. The answer is yes. I thank them for an amazing experience and the faith they’ve given me that this approach can work and is sustainable. Remember Southwest Airlines work in one of the most cut-throat industries where margins are tight and they not only rate extremely highly in their financial returns and customer experience data but also in their employee engagement numbers. It starts with their mantra that they put their employees first in their decision making process.

Their simple philosophy is based around 4 key statements:

1. Secure employees are happy employees

Unlike any other American airline, Southwest has been profitable every year since 1973. Southwest has never had a major layoff, never cut salaries, and has always paid their employees generously. Southwest is a conservative, cautious company that doesn’t take risks with their employees jobs or security.

2. Sacrifice for your employees, and they will sacrifice for you

When Herb Kelleher, former chairman of Southwest, asked the pilot’s union to agree to a five-year pay freeze, Kelleher offered to apply the same pay freeze to his own salary. It showed his employees that he was willing to make sacrifices for the good of the company and the continued prosperity of all employees. Showing solidarity and fairness to your employees will go a long way to building trust across all levels of your organization.

3. Employees are motivated to reach specific goals

Southwest initially struggled to compete with the larger, more established airlines. In order to operate with less planes, they introduced an initiative to reduce turnover time from 45 minutes to 10. Southwest’s employees rallied behind this simple and specific goal, and now Southwest turnarounds average 23 minutes, vs. 35 or more for most major airlines.

4. Work can (and should!) be fun

Southwest has always cultivated an atmosphere of relaxation and creativity. When faced with a lawsuit to determine who could use the slogan “just plane smart”, Kelleher challenged South Carolina aviation to a charity arm-wrestling match. And flight attendants are encouraged to spice up their announcements with jokes and songs. A little flexibility and joviality goes a long way to relieving the tension and tedium of most jobs. Though it may not be as “professional”, most customers will enjoy a more relaxed and memorable experience, where employees are free to be genuine and joyous.

But their proudest achievement remains their position atop “Best Place to Work” lists like Reuter’s to Forbes, because Southwest knows that the success of their company is predicated on the security, happiness, and productivity of their employees.

Let me compare that with a flight some 3 years ago from Perth to Melbourne where the cabin staff were actually happy to offer up to me that morale was low right across the business; due to the continual reference to tough times and not meeting shareholder expectations by the senior management. A fresh round of layoffs had also recently been announced. On that flight I was greeted with the fake “cheesy smile” and “welcome aboard” that had no conviction behind it. Not a great way to start the journey I must say.

So why do some organisations take one path and others an opposite?

Perhaps Southwest have a greater connection to what it is to be human.

Be Human

Mark LeBusque is the Human Manager. He has a track record in helping clients add more Human to their businesses and drive up Employee Engagement, Customer Experience and Business Results; and his 7 Step approach is based on his own experimentation as a Manager.

Mark’s first book BEING HUMAN – Why Robots are not the Answer to Business Success was launched in February 2017. For Orders click below

Stop Creating Leadership Teams


“The three of us will form the leadership group, (but) we have a really strong group of leaders at this football club that are underneath us. We expect all of our players to buy into the standards and we didn’t really want to put titles on it as such – Scott Pendelbury.

Well you have put titles on it Scott……..Leadership Group (just saying).

I read with interest last week that in 2017 Collingwood FC in the Australian Football League had “streamlined” its Leadership Group to Three (from Five in 2016). Such big news that it was a large headline in the local newspapers with the reasons why the decision had been made to move from the 2016 structure (see photo below).

I have been challenged by the notion of Leaders and Leadership Teams having been exposed to the great work on Adaptive Leadership by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky who refer to Leadership as a “verb”, an act if you like rather than a position or title. Leadership happens when someone steps forward and undertakes some kind of act and “dances at the edge of their authority” according to Ron and Marty.

Too often confusing reigns about Authority and Leadership and I’m suggesting that perhaps they should be called the Authority Group even though that is not as sexy as the term “Leaders” or “Leadership Group”.

Let’s look at Scott Pendelbury as the captain and what this gives him the authority to do:

  • be the first to run onto the arena on game day and possibly break through the banner
  • attend the coin toss and make a decision on which end his team will kick to
  • speak at the press conferences
  • represent the Collingwood FC at official functions as its Captain elect for 2017

Does this make him a Leader?

My answer is NO…………………

My question regarding its usage is this:

What about the other Forty One players on Collingwoods List?

Are they there to just follow the “Leaders”, not capable of demonstrating an “Act of Leadership” when it is their turn to dance at the edge of their authority? Does this mean that all the pressure is placed on Pendlebury, Sidebottom and Adams to do this based upon a title they have been given? Is that a model that is likely to bring success to this group in 2017?

It doesn’t make sense.

I’m sure these three young men are excellent role models for others amongst their list but does that make them the “leaders” because they have been voted by their peers or do they just have more “authority” than the other forty one of their teammates?

So why do AFL Clubs get so caught up in the notion of Leadership Teams and Leaders who are voted in by their peers or perhaps the “Leaders” above them (coaching staff and the executive)? The word is overused in this industry to a point where it is diluted and becomes meaningless. Listen to any press conference and you will hear the “L” Word in many different forms. I’ve been challenging this notion given the work I am doing within the AFL at present and the facial expressions and immediate reactions have been interesting to say the least.

It’s the same in the Corporate World. Get “voted” (via an Interview) to “Manager” and eventually someone will call you a “Leader” and you may even become part of a “Leadership Team” and attend the Tuesday 9am “Senior Leadership Team Meeting”

It doesn’t mean you are a Leader – more so an Actor until you take Action of some description. Dance at the Edge of Your Authority and Perform an Act of Leadership if you like.

We are all simply Leadership Actors until we take undertake Acts of Leadership

I’ve just read now that St Kilda have announced a “Leadership Group” of Eight players – so what does that make the other 36 on the list? Followers, Actors or Actions Takers?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

Mark LeBusque is the Human Manager. He has a track record in helping clients add more Human to their businesses and drive up Employee Engagement, Customer Experience and Business Results; and his 7 Step approach is based on his own experimentation as a Manager.

Mark’s first book BEING HUMAN – Why Robots are not the Answer to Business Success was launched in February 2017. For Orders click below

It’s The Right Thing To Do

It doesn’t make sense to have to do the wrong thing in order to do the right thing – Jim DeMint

I spoke recently at an IWD Conference about my approach to Life Design, how it impacts on Employee Engagement and Happiness; and in particular how I expected, with my permission those under my care to take accountability for the design of their Life.

It involved each of them a 2 week “Life Audit” where every second, minute and hour over that time was categorised in the following 4 areas:



Family & Friends


Upon completing the audit I asked them to look forward 12 months to imagine a more balanced Life and set a goal for each of the non-work related areas.

These goals were then added into their annual performance plans and each assigned a 5% loading towards their year end bonus. Yes that’s correct non-work related goals in a performance plan with a financial incentive attached.

My thinking was that a Human with a better awareness of Life Design would be happier and therefore more productive across all facets of their life.  This is supported by research by Happiness Expert Shawn Anchor that happy and engaged employees increased sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%.

All were then assigned a “Balance Buddy” and each fortnight they checked in and held each other accountable to their non-work related goals. Each month they would check in with me to give me an update on their progress.

It’s not groundbreaking stuff I know however it was a question that I was asked after speaking that surprised me:

How did you get permission to do this from senior management?

My answer was that I didn’t seek or get permission to do this; I did it because it was the right thing to do.


Many Managers face an increasing dilemma in the many roles that they play every second, minute and hour of each day. There is a tension between doing what I’m told and doing what is right. Sometimes doing what I’m told is the right thing to do.  Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes what I’m told to do may not be what my Manager really wants me to do. Given our human instinct to survive, to feel safe and secure the easy option is to do what I’m told even though at times it doesn’t feel right.

It is hard to do what is right when you are unsure of the personal risk and reward that will come with it.

Why not take a deep breath today, pluck up some courage, hold your nerve and do something today that is the right thing to do.