Turbulence Is Inevitable, Misery Is Optional: Lessons on Leadership from a Former Southwest Airlines CEO

Sep 18, 2013 2:28:25 PM

For years, Howard Putnam wore mismatched cuff-links as a reminder of the opportunities and perils of business. One was from his days at Southwest Airlines. The other was from ill-fated Braniff. Putnam holds the distinction of having been the leader of both.


During a keynote presentation titled “Some Play the Game, Others Change the Way the Game Is Played,” Putnam closed Mega Leadership Camp with insightful lessons on succeeding in business and in life.


Putnam was raised on a farm in Iowa, where he learned discipline and accountability. He plowed fields at night when he was 12. He also learned to fly. Putnam’s father was fascinated with aviation and determined to sell enough livestock to buy a plane. Putnam recalled the splendor of that small yellow plane. “We had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no hot water,” he said. “But we had an airplane!” Putnam decided then and there to pursue a career in the skies.


By the time he was 17, Putnam was a baggage handler at Chicago Midway for Capital Airlines. Putnam’s colorblindness prevented him from serving as a military pilot, so he made it his mission to run an airline one day.

When he was 23, married and with a young child, United Airlines acquired Capital and Putnam was given a cursory transitional interview by a United employee named Fred. Fred asked Putnam what he hoped to accomplish at the combined company. When Putnam said he intended to be president, the man laughed aloud. Putnam was deeply affected by the man’s negativity. Through the course of a dozen promotions over the next 16 years, Putnam would say to himself, “I’m coming, Fred!” When Southwest announced that Putnam would serve as its next CEO, Putnam received a call from Fred. “I’ve never forgotten what I said that day and I have to apologize,” Fred said. “I wish you the best.”

Putnam contrasted Fred’s approach with a revered United executive who lamented that “Nobody ever tells me anything.” He placed a notebook outside his office and invited any employee in the company to communicate directly to him.

Taking Flight

When Putnam met with Southwest founder Herb Kelleher, Kelleher promised to stay true to the path the burgeoning airline was on. The company has been profitable for 40 years in a row.

Putnam said the single biggest contributor to the airline’s phenomenal success has been its adherence to the original vision it set out for itself.

When Jim Collins’ wrote “Great by Choice,” Collins estimated that Southwest was still using 80 percent of its original vision statement. “Stick with the good stuff that works,” he advised.

Putnam, who served as the head of group marketing for United, emphasized the importance of communicating and sharing your story. “It’s just as important to tell what you are as what you are not,” he said. “Constantly ask yourself: What are you? And what are you not?”

There’s always opportunity if you hold true to your values. From 1979 to 2009, airfares dropped 50 percent adjusted for inflation. Recently, however, they’ve started to climb again through the seemingly endless fees that airlines charge for baggage, leg room and other amenities. “[Current Southwest CEO] Gary Kelly says they’ve gained 2 percent market share by not charging for bags.”

Cruising Altitude

Culture supports everything, Putnam said. In Southwest’s early days, they hired young, enthusiastic flight attendants and then compiled a list of common characteristics that would serve as the criteria for all hiring decisions. The culture led directly to the creative announcements flight crews make on routes. It has also led to one of the most competitive job application processes in business. Southwest has 44,000 employees. Last year, the company received 140,000 applications and hired 3,000. As Kelly jokes: “It’s easier to get into an Ivy League school than to be hired at Southwest.”

Putnam touted Southwest’s profit sharing system and implored leaders not to hold secrets. “Show ‘em what you got,” he said. During his years as a CEO, Putnam made a practice of replying to 4-5 complaints each day. One man flew Southwest five days a week and would periodically vent his frustrations. Putnam met him at the gate to have coffee – a story the man still tells. In fact, a friend of Putnam’s recently heard it firsthand while on a cruise in the South Pacific.


Putnam is a devoted reader of leadership books. One of his new favorites is Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing. Putnam especially enjoys Keller’s chapter on counterbalancing. In fact, Putnam displayed an image of a propeller he had printed several decades ago. The blades are emblazoned with categories like “Family” and “Work” that are similar to the seven essential areas Keller believes we must attend to in our life: our spiritual life, physical health, personal life, key relationships, job, business, and finances.

Putnam also applauded Keller Williams’ Mission, Vision, Values, Beliefs and Perspective. (He was introduced by Mike Brodie, his real estate agent in Plano two decades ago who has stayed in touch all these years.) “Keller Williams is changing the way,” he said. “You should be proud!”