Taking Kindness and Civility Beyond Competition

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TAKEAWAY: Southwest, long known for its heart, is promoting civility and kindness as values that work for its employees—and for everyone else.

In March 2020, a viral internet video showed a well-known political commentator berating an airline’s gate agents as they dealt with an aircraft mechanical problem. It wasn’t a Southwest flight, but to Southwest Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly, the tirade hit home. Livestreamed rants may attract eyeballs, but they also corrode employee morale and the passenger experience. Says Kelly, “It’s time to try a little kindness.”

Kindness as a competitive advantage? Simple but essential. Since it took to the skies in 1971, Southwest has democratized air travel by offering low fares, high value, and legendary customer service. It’s done this largely by re-engineering the flight experience to minimize downtime and delays. Building efficient operations, though, takes hospitality and Southwest calls personal relationships the secret ingredient to its success. These relationships are built on deep mutual respect for everyone in the sequence that starts with a passenger buying a ticket and ends with that passenger stepping off a safe and satisfying flight. Kindness and civility are the bonds that hold Southwest’s high-performance relationships together—and the foundation of a distinctive advantage for the airline.

Kelly, just the fifth CEO in Southwest’s 49-year history, is, like his predecessors, a champion of companywide values, including civility, kindness, and mutual respect. During the contentious national elections of 2016, Kelly seized the moment to move the conversation about civility from inside the airline to a national stage. Writing in Southwest’s onboard magazine, Kelly’s article, “Embracing Civility and the Golden Rule” discussed his concerns about the state of civil discourse in society. The article struck a chord with employees and customers alike, and Kelly went on the road to talk about the vision of a kinder, more civil, less selfish society. At the Detroit Economic Club, he said:

“I have a growing concern that, as a larger society, we are becoming more divisive and less civil toward each other. I see it in politics and the media, and I especially see it online in social forums. I’m sure smart people could debate why this has become so prevalent—and I certainly don’t propose to have all the answers. What I do know is a little civility goes a long way. And an abundance of civility could bring us all closer together, help us understand each other, make us stronger, and enable us to fulfill the dream of ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ that our Founding Fathers imagined.”  

In 2019, on the eve of another U.S. election cycle, Southwest took its message further by joining with Leon Logothetis, known as “The Kindness Guy,” on the Netflix-produced series The Kindness Diaries. Here, Logothetis travels the world, depending wholly on the kindness of strangers he meets along the way. Southwest and Logothetis also launched a five-part series called Where Have You Been? to showcase the effects of kindness on people in transit. This series is shown on Southwest’s Inflight Entertainment Portal and is now on YouTube.  Says Kelly, “We’ve found a kindred spirit in Leon, who is truly an inspiring humanitarian. We share Leon’s passion to make the world smaller and bring people together by spreading kindness and civility and making meaningful connections with our fellow neighbors—near and far.”

Do civility and kindness make a difference? In the hyper-competitive world of air travel, Southwest has long sustained its leadership both as a financially successful company and as a fixture on Fortune’s list of the World’s Most Admired companies. Beyond the numbers, many passengers have taken Gary’s words to heart. Said one, “I recommend that we passengers reciprocate Gary Kelly’s message and spread our own kindness … say a few heartfelt thank-yous, smile, stay calm and return some of the love that on easy days we have all gotten from Southwest people.”