A Leadership Lesson: Stay Out of the Way When Things Are Going Well

I’m continuing a series of lessons learned from top executives with brilliant insights from Herb Kelleher, founder and chairman emeritus of Southwest Airlines (featured in this Fortune cover story).

The Foundation of Leadership: Get out of their way

Trust your employees. You hired them for their skills, knowledge and talents. Unless they need you, get out of their way and let them do what they do best.

“Be there when [employees are] having problems, and stay out of their way when things are going well.”

Pay attention to your people – and never stop

Companies of any size can put their people first. This dynamic shouldn’t change as the organization grows. It may require more commitment, but it can be done. And, just like working on employee engagement, you’re never done.

The concept is simple, but the execution takes a lot of work and a lot of attention. If you’re going to pay personal attention to each of your people, for instance, and every grief and every joy that they suffer in their lives, you really have to have a tremendous network for gathering information.

We want to show them they’re important to us as who they are, as people… It’s not formulaic. The way I describe it is this huge mosaic that you’re always adding little pieces to make it work. And it’s not a job that you do for six months and then you just say, ‘Well, that’s behind us.’ It’s something you do every day.”

Culture trumps strategy

It doesn’t matter what your strategy is if you’re people cannot, will not, or don’t know how to accomplish that strategy.

Some people will say, ‘Well, this is not a strategy,’ because they like the word ‘strategy.’ You know, it sounds important, like the Strategic Air Command. And I’d say, ‘Well, here’s how I differentiate.’ I think it was Tolstoy, if I remember correctly, who said, ‘How does Napoleon march onto a balcony in France and get a whole bunch of French troops to march into Russia to their death?’ And I said, ‘Well, the strategy involved was his imperial ambitions, right? But what made the troops march? The culture.’ And I said, ‘It’s the troops marching that defines the culture.’”

Core values drive expediency & efficiency

Business in the 21st century is driven by speed and efficiency – the ability to react quickly to rapid change in the marketplace and in the world. Having a clear, concise set of core values helps you make those necessary decisions more quickly.

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I’ve always thought that having a simple set of values for a company was also a very efficient and expedient way to go. And I’ll tell you why. Because if somebody makes a proposal and it infringes on those values, you don’t study it for two years. You just say, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ And you go on quickly. So I think that contributes to efficiency.”

What are the driving factors in your organization? Your people? Your values? Your culture? What moves your business forward?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.

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