A financial analyst once asked me if I was afraid of losing control of our organization. I told him I’ve never had control and I never wanted it. If you create an environment where the people truly participate, you don’t need control. They know what needs to be done, and they do it. And the more that people will devote themselves to your cause on a voluntary basis, a willing basis, the fewer hierarchs and control mechanisms you need.
We’re not looking for blind obedience. We’re looking for people who on their own initiative want to be doing what they’re doing because they consider it to be a worthy objective. I have always believed that the best leader is the best server. And if you’re a servant, by definition you’re not controlling.
In an organization like ours, you’re also likely to be a step behind the employees. The fact that I cannot possibly know everything that goes on in our operation — and don’t pretend to — is a source of competitive advantage. The freedom, informality, and interplay that people enjoy allow them to act in the best interests of the company. For instance, when our competitors began demanding tens of millions of dollars a year for us to use their travel agents’ reservations systems, I said, forget it; we’ll develop an electronic, ticketless system so travel agents won’t have to hand- write Southwest tickets — and we won’t be held hostage to our competitors’ distribution systems. It turned out that people from several departments had already gotten together, anticipated such a contingency, and begun work on a system, unbeknownst to me or the rest of our officers. That kind of initiative is possible only when people know that our company’s success rests with them, not with me.
– Herb Kelleher, [retired] chairman, president, and CEO of Southwestern Airlines