Herb Kelleher "If you ain't got culture, you ain't got sh**t."


In the Intelligent Fanatics Project book, Ian and I had fun telling the story of Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines. One thing that did not make it into the book was this gem of a speech on culture. Not only does Herb talk about the importance of culture, but, in his usual wit, we get great analogies to help us recall these powerful lessons.

Get your pale out because there is a lot of wisdom here. The transcript is below, and I bolded the parts I felt were most important.

The business of business is people. Yesterday, today and forever. Among employees, shareholders, and customers, we decided that our internal customers, our employees, came first.

The synergy in our opinion is simple: honor, respect, care for, protect and reward your employees regardless of title or position, and in turn they will treat each other and their external customers in a warm, in a caring, and in a hospitable way. This causes external customers to return, thus bringing joy to shareholders.

We believe that our job is not only to provide a far more reliable service at far lower fares, but also to provide a spiritual infusion: an infusion of fun, warmth, hospitality and diligent servanthood for both employees and our passengers. The intangibles of spirit, in our view, are more important than the tangibles of things.


First of all it’s a matter of morality and of ethics. But secondly, from the purely business standpoint, the tangibles can always be purchased. All airlines have airplanes but the intangibles are far more difficult for competitors to replicate. And unless a company’s paying peonage compensation, psychic satisfaction is what employees and even external customers are primarily seeking.

If anyone doubts the value of an esprit de corps, I suggest to talk with the United States Marine Corps. Esprit gets things done well and fast.

Communicate, communicate, communicate and communicate but not in corporate speak or bureaucratese, which is not only boring but hardly understandable.

Setup employee services and employee care departments which are constantly in contact with employees who have any professional or personal problems. Show that you value your employees as individuals, not just as workers. Through word and by deed, join their every personal exultation such as the birth of a baby and their every personal mishap in grief, such as the death of a relative. You always hear from us what anything important happens in your life.

As a business becomes larger, and more widespread geographically, establish culture committees. Establish culture committees in effect as missionaries to spread the word and keep the fire of culture burning. And constantly honor and constantly celebrate employees who display golden rule behavior inside or outside the work environment because they’re the role models for all of your people and how you want them to behave.

Culture is admittedly difficult to define. I suppose in that respect, it’s somewhat akin to the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography. You know it when you see it, but it’s kind of hard to define.

I ran into that when Diane von Furstenberg wrote me some years ago and said that she had flown on Southwest Airlines and that she really didn’t like our ambiance. I wrote back to her and said I didn’t know what ambiance meant. I was just damn glad to hear that we had one.

But even though it’s definitionally elusive, that does not diminish the significance in the power of culture. Former governor Earl Long of Louisiana brought that home very forcibly to me. One of the doyens [most respected or prominent person] of New Orleans society wanted some money to establish a museum in New Orleans. She called governor Long and she said, “Governor, you cannot have a world-class city unless you have a world-class museum.” He said, “Well, ma’am, I’ve been fighting this battle for you for the last day and a half with my staff. Said they wanted to spend the money on schools. I told them no. They wanted to spend the money on hospitals. I told them no. They wanted to spend the money on roads. I told them no." He said, "You know when I finally prevailed is when I told them, ‘Look guys if you ain’t got culture, you ain’t got shit.’

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