by Sandra Ford Walston
How often do you hear a CEO declare with pride that his or her organization has never had a layoff, furlough or bankruptcy?
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly made that statement recently at the University of Denver’s Voices of Experience, an annual opportunity to hear CEO business leaders speak about the lessons they have learned from years of experience. I always enjoy the privilege of hearing these leaders speak, and I’m always curious to see how they manifest the courage necessary to become an effective leader.
A sure sign of effective leadership is the culture it creates. Employees operating in a courageous leadership culture will demonstrate twelve well-defined courage actions like revealing vulnerability, instilling self-discipline and celebrating success. In an organization with a courageous leadership culture, status quo and mediocrity simply are not acceptable, a position repeatedly emphasized by the late Steve Jobs.
During his talk, Kelly proclaimed his pride in Southwest Airlines’ emphasis on “Luv,” a “cute” tagline that actually reveals a lot about the company’s culture of courageous leadership. After all, when was the last time you heard the word “love” used at work? Kelly even showed the attendees some luv with a $50.00 airfare gift certificate and bags of peanuts and pretzels. More significantly, Kelly was pleased to share that his employees are the best-paid in the industry. Kelly said a big part of Southwest’s cultural focus favors “how people feel.” Why? “Southwest believes that our employees are the heart of the culture. We take time to recognize, reward and celebrate our employees,” including a monthly celebration of employee excellence called the “Winning Spirit Award.”
This focus on employees certainly contradicts the nationwide trend of dispirited workers who disengage at work, simply putting in their time to collect a paycheck. Gary said he believes his “employees love what they do.” If you love what you do, you feel self-fulfilled, and that’s the ultimate in courage consciousness!
“Every company has a culture. The question is how you are going to model it.” Gary continued. “You do it by spending time with people and putting the people first!”
Asked if he was ever intimidated by former boss and co-founder Herb Kelleher, who demonstrated a relentless focus and strategic business prowess, Gary said, “I don’t think I was intimidated. No, I would not use that word. I have worked for Southwest since 1986 first as the controller and then in 1989 as the chief financial officer and vice president of finance. Herb was my mentor. His office is still 100 yards away, but he never butts in. Besides, you either sink or swim, and that takes courage! So, I would say we collaborated.”
Collaboration is a courage action that leads to accountability and positive results. Along with collaboration comes connection and contribution. Most people more easily recognize the courage killers that keep organizations in StuckThinking™. Courage killers include conformity, complacency, complaining and corruption.
Key leadership skills for Kelly are communication and teamwork.
The four ways Kelly encourages communication:
- Know what you want to communicate.
- Focus on convictions and purpose.
- Ask: “Where do we want to go?”
- Get rid of the clutter.
Kelly’s top five leadership skills:
- A people focus
- Communication skills
- Developing interpersonal relationships
- A heart-centered approach
Kelly hit the nail squarely on the head with the last one as courage lives in the heart. The word “courage” comes from the Old French word “corage”, meaning “heart and spirit,” which tells us that acting with courage is really about acting from our own heart and spirit—from the center of each of our own beings.
I find it intriguing that these types of lists never focus on hard skills; instead they show the importance of the skills that come with the development of higher levels of courage consciousness—compassion, courageous will, forgiveness, reflection, and being present to others. Lower levels of consciousness are characterized by behaviors like blame, anger, denial and apathy.
Promises are a big part of courageous leadership behaviors because each employee is challenged to hold him or herself accountable. When asked how he delivers on his promises, Kelly said, “We are pro-active with our customers and form a relationship with them. If we make a mistake, we apply the Golden Rule and a warriors’ spirit, which means we fess up. With that said, if a customer is wrong, we say ‘good-bye.’”
Interestingly, in my almost twenty years of courage leadership research, I’ve learned that confessing is one of twelve “cousins” to courage.
She is the internationally published author of bestsellerCOURAGE The Heart and Spirit of Every Woman (2001), the follow-up book STUCK 12 Steps Up the LeadershipLadder (2010) and the recently released FACE IT! 12 Obstacles that Hold You Back on the Job (2011). She is certified in the Enneagram and MBTI®. Watch YouTube:FACE IT! | Twitter | Facebook
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