What Can You Learn from Southwest Airlines

What happened to Southwest Airlines?

(I didn’t write this. I found it. I’m sharing it.)

I’ve been a pilot for Southwest Airlines for over 35 years. I’ve given my heart and soul to Southwest Airlines during those years. And quite honestly Southwest Airlines has given its heart and soul to me and my family.

Many of you have asked what caused this epic meltdown. Unfortunately, the frontline employees have been watching this meltdown coming like a slow motion train wreck for sometime. And we’ve been begging our leadership to make much needed changes in order to avoid it. What happened yesterday started two decades ago.

Herb Kelleher was the brilliant CEO of SWA until 2004. He was a very operationally oriented leader. Herb spent lots of time on the front line. He always had his pulse on the day to day operation and the people who ran it. That philosophy flowed down through the ranks of leadership to the front line managers. We were a tight operation from top to bottom. We had tools, leadership and employee buy in. Everything that was needed to run a first class operation. When Herb retired in 2004 Gary Kelly became the new CEO.

Gary was an accountant by education and his style leading Southwest Airlines became more focused on finances and less on operations. He did not spend much time on the front lines. He didn’t engage front line employees much. When the CEO doesn’t get out in the trenches the neither do the lower levels of leadership.

Gary named another accountant to be Chief Operating Officer (the person responsible for day to day operations). The new COO had little or no operational background. This trickled down through the lower levels of leadership, as well.

They all disengaged the operation, disengaged the employees and focused more on Return on Investment, stock buybacks and Wall Street. This approach worked for Gary’s first 8 years because we were still riding the strong wave that Herb had built.
But as time went on the operation began to deteriorate. There was little investment in upgrading technology (after all, how do you measure the return on investing in infrastructure?) or the tools we needed to operate efficiently and consistently. As the frontline employees began to see the deterioration in our operation we began to warn our leadership. We educated them, we informed them and we made suggestions to them.

But to no avail. The focus was on finances not operations. As we saw more and more deterioration in our operation our asks turned to pleas. Our pleas turned to dire warnings. But they went unheeded. After all, the stock price was up so what could be wrong?

We were a motivated, willing and proud employee group wanting to serve our customers and uphold the tradition of our beloved airline, the airline we built and the airline that the traveling public grew to cheer for and luv. But we were watching in frustration and disbelief as our once amazing airline was becoming a house of cards.

A half dozen small scale meltdowns occurred during the mid to late 2010’s. With each mini meltdown Leadership continued to ignore the pleas and warnings of the employees in the trenches. We were still operating with 1990’s technology. We didn’t have the tools we needed on the line to operate the sophisticated and large airline we had become. We could see that the wheels were about ready to fall off the bus. But no one in leadership would heed our pleas.

When COVID happened SWA scaled back considerably (as did all of the airlines) for about two years. This helped conceal the serious problems in technology, infrastructure and staffing that were occurring and being ignored. But as we ramped back up the lack of attention to the operation was waiting to show its ugly head.

Gary Kelly retired as CEO in early 2022. Bob Jordan was named CEO. He was a more operationally oriented leader. He replaced our Chief Operating Officer with a very smart man and they announced their priority would be to upgrade our airline’s technology and provide the frontline employees the operational tools we needed to care for our customers and employees. Finally, someone acknowledged the elephant in the room.

But two decades of neglect takes several years to overcome. And, unfortunately to our horror, our house of cards came tumbling down this week as a routine winter storm broke our 1990’s operating system.

The frontline employees were ready and on station. We were properly staffed. We were at the airports. Hell, we were ON the airplanes. But our antiquated software systems failed coupled with a decades old system of having to manage 20,000 frontline employees by phone calls. No automation had been developed to run this sophisticated machine.

We had a routine winter storm across the Midwest last Thursday. A larger than normal number flights were cancelled as a result. But what should have been one minor inconvenient day of travel turned into this nightmare. After all, American, United, Delta and the other airlines operated with only minor flight disruptions.

The two decades of neglect by SWA leadership caused the airline to lose track of all its crews. ALL of us. We were there. With our customers. At the jet. Ready to go. But there was no way to assign us. To confirm us. To release us to fly the flight. And we watched as our customers got stranded without their luggage missing their Christmas holiday.
I believe that our new CEO Bob Jordan inherited a MESS.

This meltdown was not his failure but the failure of those before him. I believe he has the right priorities. But it will take time to right this ship. A few years at a minimum. Old leaders need to be replaced. Operationally oriented managers need to be brought in. I hope and pray Bob can execute on his promises to fix our once proud airline. Time will tell.

It’s been a punch in the gut for us frontline employees. We care for the traveling public. We have spent our entire careers serving you. Safely. Efficiently. With luv and pride. We are horrified. We are sorry. We are sorry for the chaos, inconvenience and frustration our airline caused you. We are angry. We are embarrassed. We are sad. Like you, the traveling public, we have been let down by our own leaders.

Herb once said the the biggest threat to Southwest Airlines will come from within. Not from other airlines. What a visionary he was. I miss Herb now more than ever.

Will It Be a Great Week?

This should be a really great week.

It will only be a really great week if you make it a great week. It’s not going to be a great week if you stay in your seat acting like a computer geek.

You can make it a great week by getting up and moving around. You should be like a bumblebee on a pollination mission.

You’re here. You’re there. You’re everywhere.

You can’t just flap your little wings in place and think someone’s gonna sell a car. You have to move around.

You have to create the buzz.

You have to go from being weak and meek in order to make it a great week.
I don’t like things to be all about you, but this is all about you. This week is all about you. It’s about you making things happen.

It’s about you contributing as much in a week as you sometimes do in a month. It’s not about you giving 100 or 110%. It’s about you giving 200%.

It’s not about asking others to do it. It’s about you doing it. You sometimes think you’re important. Well, you are important. You’re even more important than you think. At least this week you are.

You may have to sting a few people this week. That’s ok. Some of your team could probably use a sting or two. A little stinging pain for a whole lot of car selling gain.

This is not the week for the meek and certainly not a week for a geek. It’s the week of the bumblebees. Let the stinging begin.

That’s all I’m gonna say, Tommy Gibbs

What Can You Learn From “Prime Time?”

I’m thinking you already know a lot about “Prime Time,” Deion Sanders.

A quick highlight of his career:

He’s one of the few people that have played two professional sports.

He played 14 years in the NFL, 9 years in MLB and was voted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2011.

“Prime Time,” is the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. He’s the only man to hit an MLB home run and score an NFL touchdown in the same week, and to have both a reception and an interception in the Super Bowl. 

Most recently he’s been the head coach at Jackson State University. Sanders led Jackson State to a 27−5 record during his three seasons at the helm. Within the last month he was named head football coach at University of Colorado Boulder.

I’ve attached a couple of videos of “Prime Time” meeting the members of the current Colorado team and saying his goodbyes to his players at Jackson State.

There are several takeaways in these video that I believe are critical to a leader’s success.

In the Jackson state video, it’s obvious how much his players love and respect him and the same from him to them. He’s able to have humorous moments and be able to get right back on task and talk about serious things.

When I owned dealerships, I often said to our new team members, “If you don’t have a sense of humor, you’re going to be very unhappy working here.”

A sense of humor combined with discipline is a powerful tool for a leader.

In the Colorado video he lays down the law. He’s dead serious and they know he ain’t kidding.

I love it when he says, “Some of you won’t make it here. Some of you will be gone.” Many leaders of today bend their rules so much that they end up with no rules and a list of meaningless processes.

No hats. No earrings. No Hoodies. His intent is to break them down just like they do in the Marine Corps.

The message is clear:

It ain’t about you.

It’s about the team.

We don’t need individuals.

We need strong teammates who are on the same page.

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

At the very core of people respecting you is to do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. It cannot be any simpler than that.

“Prime Time” is smart.

“Prime Time” is a leader.

Be smart and lead like “Prime Time.” That’s all I’m gonna say. Tommy Gibbs

Are You Dead or Alive?

Great leaders have their thumb on the pulse of the organization.

Without a pulse the organization dies. If you are to improve your leadership skills you must know the pulse of your organization.

You can only know the pulse of the organization by absorbing yourself within the daily activities and action of the business. To feel the pulse you must feel the passion.

If you’re not feeling the passion, then your pulse may very well be dead. Maybe your pulse is dead because you’re burned out.

How can you be burned out when you’ve never been on fire?

You are responsible for your own fire. I’m just trying to give you a match to get you going. Firing up your own passion will ignite your organization.

Real leaders have a pulse.

Real leaders feel the pulse.

Real leaders inspire a pulse.

Hope you’re on fire. That’s all I’m gonna say, Tommy Gibbs