bottom of my soul

From the Bottom of My Soul

“I believe, from the bottom of my soul…”

One of the most powerful phrases you’ll ever hear.

I heard that phrase about two months ago, and the conviction in the soft voice stopped my pen from taking notes, pulled my eyes from my notebook to the woman on the stage, and snagged every tendril of thought from where they had been roaming, to focus fully on what was coming next.

What came next was one story after another, confirming, validating, solidifying something that I also believe, from the bottom of my soul.

Leadership isn’t a role, it doesn’t require a title. It is a way of life.

That’s just one of the things that Colleen Barrett, President Emerita of Southwest Airlines, recipient of this year’s Go-Giver Lifetime Achievement Award, co-author (with Ken Blanchard) of Lead With Luv: A Different Way to Create Real Success, and keynote speaker at The Go-Giver Retreat last month in West Palm Beach, shared during her hour or so on stage. Just one of the things that gave me pause, and chills of delight.

(The other delightful thing about getting to meet Colleen and hear her speak was that she was joined at the event by her predecessor, co-founder of SWA, Herb Kelleher. I had the privilege of spending the afternoon sitting next to Herb and getting to know his keen wit and huge heart. Two icons, whose passion and business acumen I’ve admired for years, and both of them turned out to be exactly who I’d hoped they would be, and a whole lot more!)

I’ve always wondered just how deep the Southwest culture really went, how authentically it was lived by the company leadership. I had that question inarguably answered. The culture of LUV at SWA goes all the way to the top, where it shows up in the behind-the-scenes setting of the speaker’s green room just as recognizably as the front-and-center spotlight of the event stage.

Herb is known for saying “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.”

At a time when corporate leadership was known for top-down governance, Herb practiced top-down empowerment. And he handed the reins of the company he founded to a woman who had once been his executive secretary, because he knew she would continue that culture of leading, with LUV. In fact, when asked to explain his choice, Herb answered, “Because she knows how to love people to success.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been all soft and fuzzy. Colleen has an astute business mind, and the Southwest business model is as much about sustainable profitability as it is about love. (It’s no accident that SWA has been profitable year after year while other airlines struggled, declared bankruptcy, and appealed to government intervention to stay in the air.)

What it does mean is that the emphasis in the Southwest culture is firmly on treating everyone with love and respect. In fact, Colleen said clearly, “To us, behavior is everything. And Golden Rule behavior isn’t expected, it’s demanded!”

But it was this policy that summed up, for me, what makes the Southwest culture a compelling example of the role that heart plays in business judgment and leadership:

“Any action that you take, if not illegal, unethical, or immoral, is perfectly okay if you’ve used your heart and your head to make a decision that you believe in this situation is the right thing to do.”

That’s right. That’s a Southwest policy. Not “follow the rule book.” Not “get a supervisor.” Not “company comes first.” But “do what your heart and head together tell you is right.”

It made me think of a definition of leadership from another friend I admire greatly, speaker, author and not-so-secret musician; Jim Cathcart. In his keynote All Leadership Begins With Self-Leadership he says “Leadership is doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and doing it right, whether you feel like it or not.” (He uses the example of changing a baby’s diaper – brilliant since we can all imagine what happens if you don’t do it when it needs to be done, or if you don’t do it right, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who looks forward to the task!)

I first watched the recording of that keynote, which was delivered upon Jim’s acceptance of the prestigious Golden Gavel award, in 2005, a time when I was speaking often on leadership and success. It resonated with me then, it resonates more loudly now.

Because no matter how many leaders I get to know, the ones I admire most have these traits in common;

  • They think first of what needs to happen, what needs doing, what needs solving, in this situation right NOW.
  • They think next of what they can do, not what the rules say they should do, or what society thinks they should do, but what they can take responsibility for doing.
  • And they do it. Not because they feel like it, or because it will make them look good. But because it’s the right thing, and it needs doing.

It brought me, finally, to the words of a man I’ve long admired, and have lately come to love as a dear and trusted friend and mentor. From a book he said he hoped children would read to their parents, the first book in The Ferret Chronicles, titled The Last War; Detective Ferrets and the Case of The Golden Deed.

In this tale, Richard Bach shares a “Constitution of Courtesies” by which his characters choose to live. It proposes that “The courtesy we show to those we love, show the same to all, be we a civilization of one or of millions” and it ends with this vow;

“I shall make each choice and live each day to my highest sense of right.”

Can there be stronger proof that leaders are neither born, nor yet made, but are self-chosen to “use their hearts and heads to make decisions,” to “do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and do it right even if they don’t feel like doing it?”

Can there be a finer creed for a leader to take? Than to lead one’s self, in a civilization of one or millions, by making the choice to follow the voice of “highest right” in every situation.

I can’t imagine what it would be.

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