Let’s examine the leadership of two entirely different transportation companies: Southwest Airlines and Uber.
They are from two different eras, each achieving remarkable success with two contrasting leadership styles. What can we learn about the role values play in business results?
Leadership plays out over time, and younger Uber has many hurdles yet to validate their approach to leadership – however, insights can be valuable.
Sustained organizational success is one of the strongest measures of good leadership. The test of time is a relentless critic. Any of us can look brilliant in one good move, however, a sustainable organization over time is much harder.
In his book, Built to Last, leadership guru Jim Collins made this observation: Rarely do companies survive longer than people. What he described as highly visionary companies “had both endurance, with an average age of nearly 100 years, and sustained performance”.
By examining the values of these two visionary companies, one young and the other older with a trajectory aiming to succeed among those long-lived companies as described by Collins, we may gain some insight about leadership practices.
I recently met Southwest Airlines Senior Vice President Craig Drew in Phoenix when he spoke at the annual chamber luncheon. Southwest, a long-recognized icon of a healthy, vibrant business culture, is in sharp contrast to Uber’s current public controversy.
The most recent Uber turmoil being reflected in CEO Travis Kalanick’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with personal family tragedy issues while questions of his leadership are fueled by the investigation by former Attorney General Eric Holder into Uber’s toxic workplace culture. In Kalanick’s absence, it is reported that Uber will be run by 14 of his direct reports excluding his right-hand man Emil Michael, who resigned from Uber last Monday. How this committee leadership model will play out may reveal further insights about the role ingrained values play in overall organization success and sustainability.
Start with a Disruptive Shared Vision
Great leaders attract others to an inspiring vision that becomes shared. In my experience a shared vision has the power to pull for its own fulfillment. Therefore, leaders influence the future with the power of their vision, and a shared vision has the capacity to take on a life of its own. This can work in favor or against the authoring leader.
Southwest Airlines set out to beat the in-place competition with a vision that they could uniquely execute by attracting and retaining both employees and customers in a compelling way.
They envisioned a point-to-point system of low fares and friendly, caring service of everyone from employees to customers to investors. Co-founder Herb Kellher is credited with establishing this culture capable of producing an affordable, welcoming, and relational experience that continues to draw customers back. Just as a flywheel builds momentum, over time the company has grown a loyal, fun-loving collection of employees. His strategy includes a relentless focus on drawing travelers not just from other airlines – but also from cars, buses, and trains, providing them the least expensive and fastest service available. Due to this robust vision, it has survived Kellher and extended to the leaders who have followed him, such as Craig Drew.
By sticking to one model of aircraft, the Boeing 737, and avoiding the traditional hub system used by other large carriers, Southwest has simplified and economized without any loss of service or convenience. So efficient is this vision that Southwest touts eighty employees per aircraft where their peers have one hundred, enhancing the economic value they bring to their customers.
Uber co-founders Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick envisioned a technology company capable of transforming their niche in the transportation industry by pioneering the sharing economy thereby avoiding the capital and labor burdens faced by their traditional competition. Their hockey stick growth has been nothing short of astounding. They have become the most valuable privately held technology company. Clearly an innovative and transformative vision that gets implemented can go far. But at what cost and is their growth sustainable?
In 2015 Uber celebrated its fifth anniversary and Business Insider quoted CEO Kalanick as saying his vision is for cities reclaiming space once wasted on garages, lots and meters to build new parks, schools and housing. Where traffic speeds along smoothly and quietly, even in rush hour. “Smarter transportation with fewer cars and greater access.” He said: “In a world where technology can deliver the ride you need within five minutes wherever you are in the world, just imagine all the other goods and services that you could one day get delivered quickly, safely, with just the single touch of a button.”
Clearly Kalanick is a visionary, but there does not seem to be a cohesive vision that the entire company has embraced and is living out. The activity and direction of the company seems to be more driven by the values expressed and demonstrated.
In leadership, vision and values are two sides of the same coin. The coin of the realm of accomplishment. On one side, the vision creates an inspiring picture of a new possibility: once it becomes shared, people bring investment, involvement, and much energy to apply to materializing the vision.
How that happens and the eventual unfoldment, and I would even suggest sustainability, is dependent on the values and how they are honored through the process. This is where our comparison of these two companies becomes interesting.
Shared Vision without Strong Guiding Values leads to…
For an interesting exercise, google Southwest Corporate Values, and then google Uber Corporate values.
For Southwest, the top-ranking search: Southwest Airlines Careers – Culture. You will immediately be taken to a corporate web page that includes the Star of the Month employee, and corporate Purpose and Vision, Values, Citizenship and Culture in Action.
For Uber, the top listing is a paid advertisement for the Official Uber Site inviting visitors to sign up to be a driver. The values aren’t visible, nor is there a link to find them.
In all fairness, one could say that Southwest has had years of practice, experience, and a legacy as their advantage and Uber young, smart, and focused on driving their business model.
However, extensive work on my part reveals that nowhere can I find a concise listing of Uber values. It is said that Uber has 14 values, some of which are vague statements as “always be hustlin’” and that employees should “be themselves.” These maxims mean nothing at best, and at worst leave what is considered appropriate conduct open to potentially poor personal judgment.
The fallout from inattention to this key leadership element of clear corporate values can be seen in an often-unrestrained workplace culture has produced a Hobbesian environment for Uber where workers are sometimes pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers.
There is nothing wrong with honoring top performers and building a merit based culture, but it must be tempered with a human and grace-filled awareness of the importance of people that Southwest seems to have captured.
In contrast to what you will quickly find if you search for the latest controversial news from Uber, consider the foundation crafted by Southwest (and this began very early on in their history) as now expressed by their published and assertively lived values. On the same web page where vision, purpose, and mission are found you will see the six corporate values organized in two groups:
Live the Southwest Way
- Warrior Spirit
- Servant’s Heart
- Fun-LUVing Attitude
Work the Southwest Way
- Safety and Reliability
- Friendly Customer Service
- Low Costs
Values are worthless unless they are lived. Our research shows that clearly defined values, consistently demonstrated across the company, brings tremendous market value.
Southwest says they put employee happiness above customer satisfaction. It’s working. In 2013, Southwest was named No. 1 in customer satisfaction by the US Department of Transportation. It is similarly well ranked in both Consumer Reports and the Business Insider’s list of best airlines in US. In 2016, the company received the fewest complaints of any major carrier among the US 10 largest airlines.
I invite you to use this comparison to examine your own corporate values. Vision is important – people must “see” and buy into what you are building. Both Uber and Southwest have used, and are using, vision powerfully.
It is the values, however, that determine just how people’s applied energy will play out and the ultimate value that is brought to the entire business equation: For customers, employees, and the investors.
Here are some questions you can use personally and with your executive team:
- Are your values clearly defined and public?
- Do employees know them?
- Do your values show up in your product and/or services?
- Are you rigorous in training, enforcing, and reinforcing your values?
- Can you “see” the value being generated from your values?
If not, you may want to verify that everyone’s actions are lined up with them.
We need good examples like Southwest to inspire us to a high standard in this area. We can have compassion for what Uber is going through and only hope that someone helps them clarify, and then live out a set of values worthy of their vision.