Herb Kelleher
1931 - 2019

Early disruptor of the airline industry and the world’s most popular CEO.


Ranked #49 in 2001.


Repeatedly voted best CEO in the airline industry.


Southwest Airlines has been profitable every year since 1973.


As co-founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, Kelleher turned conventional airline industry wisdom on its head. With a strategy (although Kelleher had a low opinion of traditional strategic planning) of low fares and high-quality customer service, Kelleher’s vision centred on using more fuel-efficient aircraft to lower costs and challenging his employees to provide no-frills service without lowering standards. He also paid well, insisting that employees should be treated like customers. With a mantra of hiring for attitude and training for skill, Kelleher created a unique company culture that became the backbone of Southwest’s success.


Born in New Jersey in 1931, Kelleher began his career as a lawyer before joining up with one of his clients, Rollin King, to create Southwest Airlines. Originally operating as an intrastate airline within Texas, the first flights, which took off in 1971, were between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Kelleher became chairman of the board in 1978 and in 1981, CEO and president, positions he held for 20 years. Although he stepped down as chairman and the board in 2008, he was given the title chairman emeritus and remained connected to the business.


Kelleher preferred running Southwest to writing about his achievements but others have sought to capture his management lessons, including “Herb Kelleher: Manage in Good Times So You’ll Do Well in the Bad Times” (Theresa Johnston, Insights by Stanford Business, 2006); “Herb Kelleher: The Thought Leader Interview” (Chuck Lucier, Strategy + Business, 2004); “Flying High with Herb Kelleher: A Profile in Charismatic Leadership” (Jane Whitney Gibson and Charles W Blackwell, Sage Journals, 1999).


Media picks


“Kelleher was perhaps the best CEO in America.”

Fortune magazine

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