Southwest Airlines: What Accountability Looks Like in Action

Southwest Airlines just gave us all a lesson in accountable leadership.

You may have seen the news a while back about Boeing having grounded its troubled 737 Max planes, pending certification from the FAA that that aircraft is actually safe to fly. There are plenty of issues about accountability to look at there, but that is another story for another day. Boeing has said it will compensate its customers for losses related to the groundings; Southwest has reported losses it sustained in the first half of 2019 due to not being able to fly the 737 Max amounting to $225 million. Boeing will be writing Southwest a check for this amount.

Now comes news that Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, in assessing what should be done with this compensation income from Boeing, is “looking for ways to share proceeds as appropriate with all of our employees.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

The CEO of the airline that flies the most domestic passengers of any US carrier is currently looking for appropriate ways to share an incoming $225 million compensation payment with every single one of his company’s employees. This is accountable leadership in action.

The corporate culture at Southwest is no accident. It is rooted in commitments. These are critical commitments from leadership to the people. One of the key commitments of accountable leadership is a commitment to the principle of “It’s all of us,” meaning “I only succeed if you succeed,” and “we are all in this together.” Those things are easy enough to say, of course. Following through on them in the real world takes discipline, effort, and character. These are traits of accountable leadership.

No matter what words come out of your mouth, no matter what kinds of posters you put up on your wall, employees have a way of figuring out quickly when you are paying lip service to this commitment of “it’s all of us,” but failing to follow through on it in practice. At Southwest, it looks like employees will soon be receiving tangible proof of the leadership’s clear commitment to this ideal — and it will not be the first such proof they receive. Southwest also offers a robust profit-sharing plan and provides its employees with a 401(k) plan that features a dollar-for-dollar match from the company up to a certain level. That is called putting your money where your mouth is. That is “It’s all of us” in action. Is it any surprise this company has made Glassdoor’s list of the best companies to work for ten years running? Is it any surprise that Southwest has a reputation for great customer service? The company actually treats its employees the way it wants employees to treat customers — as though “we are all in this together.”

Southwest’s best practices in this area lead to some important questions about accountability for leaders in all industries. Do your employees know that you make important decisions based on the commitment “It’s all of us”? How do they know that? What action can you take, today, to demonstrate and strengthen that commitment?


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