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August 12, 2013

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5 Leadership Lessons from Southwest Airlines, the Atlanta Falcons and More

Last week while speaking to Jockey, Southwest Airlines, the Atlanta Falcons and the Clemson University football team, I had the opportunity to learn as much I taught. As a student of leadership I kept writing things down and felt I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t share them with you. So, here are 5 lessons I learned that will hopefully benefit you and your team.

1. Be Real - Debra Waller, the CEO of Jockey, stood on stage and shared how the challenges she faced as a child helped her become the person and leader she is today. She didn’t just talk. She connected because she was honest, authentic, transparent and real. I saw Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest Airlines, do the same thing. He even played the guitar with the Southwest band on stage. The 900 Southwest leaders in attendance loved it and so did I. Leaders often think they have to act higher than thou but what people want is for them to be down to earth. The best thing you can do is be you. Be real and connect.

2. Know what You Stand For - The leaders and employees of Southwest Airlines know what they stand for and I believe it is one of the main reasons for their success. Their purpose is to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel. So when consultants told them a few years ago that they could make a lot more money if they charged for bags, the leaders of Southwest asked themselves if charging for bags would align with their purpose. As we all know the answer was “no” and they decided not to charge for bags. The result of knowing what you stand for: Southwest gained market share and more people flew their airline. Once you know what you stand for every decision you make is easy.

3. Live your Values - A lot of companies and organizations have core values and mission statements written on walls and websites but at Southwest Airlines they focus on hiring and developing people who live and breathe the Southwest mission and values. Everything they do is driven by their mission, purpose and values. This alignment between what they say and do is refreshing. After all, a mission statement is pointless unless your people are on a mission. And it doesn’t matter what you say on your website if you don’t live and breathe it.

4. Relationships Matter Most - Before I spoke to the Atlanta Falcons team last Friday, Coach Mike Smith and I spoke a lot about leadership. I’ve always known he is a great coach and leader but after six years of visiting with him I discovered his best secret. He told me the most important thing he does is focus on relationships. He knows his leaders. He knows his team. They know him. He spends time with them. He connects with them. He knows who needs encouragement and who needs to be challenged. He knows them as people not just professionals. He cares about his team and they know it. Coach Smith is proof that you win in the locker room first and then you win on the field.

5. Leadership is a Transfer of Belief - You don’t have to be a Clemson football fan to admire what Dabo Swinney has done with his team. The last few years he has transformed them into consistent winners and after spending time with him I know why. He believes and he inspires his team to believe. He encourages his players to strive for excellence and encourages each player to be their best while convincing them they can achieve the best if they follow the process. Of course great coaching, talent, preparation and execution are a big part of their success as well. But it is his contagious belief and optimism that is the engine that drives everything else.

Share your thoughts on these 5 lessons and what you are learning about leadership on our blog or Facebook page.

- Jon


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