A CEO of Southwest Airlines on Goals
We forget the expected and remember the unusual. I’ve been remembering something unusual that was said to me about ten months ago.
Jim Parker, former CEO of Southwest Airlines told me, “Don’t set artificial goals for yourself. Don’t set goals about the job you want or the amount of money you want to make.”
You may ask, How can you drive toward success if you don’t have goals that define success? The operative term is “artificial.”
This morning it dawned on me why Jim frequently shares his advice about artificial goals. I’m a slow thinker. He lived and led through the most turbulent days in modern American history; the September 11th attack on the World Trade Towers.
He lost people. Events like that clarify. Artificial slips away.
I’m certain Jim isn’t against all goals. Organizational targets define success.
The lesson I take is focus on people and the contribution you plan to make.
I still remember that Jim couldn’t stop telling stories about the people of Southwest.
Every time young leaders list their artificial goals I think of Jim.
In America it’s Monday morning. We’re starting a new week and I’m remembering a down-home conversation I had with a guy who lived through moments of devastating clarity. I’m remembering that life, leadership, and business are about people. It’s always that way, even if we forget it.
Set your goals higher than artificial success. Deliverables and results are important but they have the power to distract you from higher priorities. It’s a great Monday to refocus on people.
You may wonder about the “unworthy” people that work around you. Don’t turn your back on a backstabber. However, don’t let the foolishness of others make you act like a fool.
How can you refocus on people?
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So cool. Setting the goals are important, when you set the right goal.
Lots of people set goals because they hear people who set goals achieve them. But goals have to be felt.
I have a simple test.
Assume you are dead and your ghost is listening to the obituary being read.
What would it be?
Here lies a man who made 10 million?
Here lies a woman who was a CEO of XYZ Inc?
At-least for me it would be
Here lies a man who helped his fellow managers lead a more emphatic life and made work fun for all his colleagues.
That’s my life philosophy, my goal.
I know that’s not measurable and goals should be measurable. I have smaller goals which help me achieve those and those I measure.
As I type this I am sitting on a train headed into a day full of meetings with clients, potential clients, and friends. Thank you for the reminder that “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business” is a crock… and that all of our business is relationship, and definitely personal.
Monday is a good time to plan who I will teach out to and commence a new relationship.
This is spot on! I believe the older you get you can see this ideal better through your own experience. So many of us set our goals to money or positions, and these are actually nothing more than crumbs–we need to set goals such as each day introduce yourself to 5 people you don’t know by name, or make a different person smile each day. As corny as this sounds, this can open more doors for not only you but that other person. Great insight SW ailines!
Such a good point – when you forget the people along the way, what have you actually accomplished? Wish this was taught in business school, so younger managers & leaders would get this message sooner!
You make a good point, Lynda. I haven’t been to business school, but I think an additional element of this is even WHEN focus on people is taught, there has to be something in that leader’s life that “activates” an understanding of the need to focus on people.
I love a publication called “Pulse, Voices from the Heart of Medicine” – although it isn’t about business (exactly), pieces like this point out the role of pivotal moments that remind us of the importance of being people-focused: http://pulsemagazine.org/Archive_Index.cfm?content_id=208
Dan, I was struck by your comment about “unworthy” people. I suspect there are really very few of those, which I think was kind of your point. Even with backstabbers or other tough people, we tend to have come into conflict over goals, so if you think of it as conflicting goals rather than conflict with a person, that sometimes helps. But you are exactly right that we can’t let those people set our agenda, we can’t let their behavior dictate ours. We need to be our best selves. So Monday is a good day to refocus on how we’re going to manage around or in spite of those folks too, so we can invest in relationships with all the good ones.
Would you consider this statement:
“I want a job where I will enjoy my work each day, so that I can be the best person I am capable of being.”
Fits for me other than ‘enjoy my work’…there may be times, in the moment, where I am not enjoying what I am doing and I know it needs to be done. I might enjoy it after a period of time and distance though! Being a data geek, I would want as clear a definition of ‘best person’ and ‘capable’–what do they look like, how would someone else know this is happening?
Poignant posting Dan, thank you! ‘Devasting clarity’ brings it home. Those moments carry with them a very human obligation (and honor) to improve, to advance and respect the work that has come before.
As far as refocusing folks, it is an element of the above. Focus on who receives the service, who truly benefits (not secondary), and then go out and learn/hear their stories. Share those stories, they will more clearly drive the VMV of the organization than any ‘talking head’.
Love your cycle time for learning Dan, wish I was that quick! 😉 (Maybe the really good stuff just takes longer to establish roots and grow.)
Hi Doc, I agree with your comment regarding cycle time. Not sure there is ever a deadline when we are talking about focusing on people. People are not static including ourselves so refocusing is a daily endeavor. We all tend to react slightly different if not radically so depending on the circumstances and my theory being to look for the good I worry less about the backstabbers and my ego-less Kevlar has protected me more than once. Sometimes I have been surprised by the worthiness of those deemed undeserving again when the probe is much more than just superficial scratching. As you suggest the “roots” which provide the life force are usually hidden and digging can at times get messy but the rewards last forever. 🙂 I am a gardener at heart and always looking for new seeds to plant! 🙂
What an odd paradox—people are not static, yet they seek staticity (yeah, I know, not a word), seek to have things remain stable, known.
I like your point about worthiness Al…and Fleming thought he was just complaining about extra work cleaning up dirty petri dishes…never know what you might find.
Hi Dan. Great way to start the week, focusing on people both in the workplace and at home. Reaching targets can certainly motivate us but it is people that inspire us. Yes it was great to graduate from Medical School, a noble goal, but it was the expressions from my parents, friends, and teachers that truly moved me. Taking the Hippocratic oath are just words unless they changed you and your behavior and your understanding of the world. We recently did an exercise at one of our MD Ambassador meetings wherein we were all asked to reflect on that milestone and come up after all these years our personalized version of our Hippocratic Oath. It was fascinating to hear the myriad versions that had been colored and dressed with the tincture of time and experience. There was one titled “To My Patient” which i would like to take a moment and share with you.
“I commit myself to help you in your time of need be it spiritual, physical or emotional.I feel privileged to have your trust, to believe in me, to allow me to care for you. I shall never leave you even when you are well; our bonds are not only for moments of pain and suffering but also for those of loneliness and sadness and yes those of joy and happiness. I am blessed that our Lord has provided me the wisdom and love to be your physician, your friend, your teacher and your student. Look for me and I will be there; see me not and I will find you. Thank you for being my patient. Without you my world is incomplete; with you I am fulfilled.”
I guess this underscores the comment made above. It is always about people and as long as people are our focus we can never go wrong. “Of all the things you wear your expression is the most important.” Smile it’s free and never goes out of style. Cheers. 🙂
Powerful Al, very very powerful. Thank you!
Am of course going to ‘borrow’ aka ‘cut and paste’ that on my wall.
Wonder what it would look like with minor modifications… it could be re-created to ‘To My Customer’, ‘To Those I Serve’ or even ‘To Those I Work With/Lead’
Wallace Wattles, “You must give every man more in use value than he gives you in cash value.” Then every business transaction becomes a win-win for all involved. You create, rather than compete. If everyone uses a win-win approach, there are no backstabbers.
Thank you for the insight. One of my professors shared this link with my class about maintaining a personal mission statement. The site certainly helps to clearly outline goals.
Thanks Dan – your post is beautiful and thoughtful. Numeric units are the only way to measure any success, but they are just that: measures. Numeric measures are the scoreboard. But when you play a game you focus on the ball – not on the scoreboard. Your real goal is the contribution that you make to the betterment of your customers’ lives; the $$ outcomes are the measures of the success with which you accomplished that goal. Focusing on the $$ rather than the contribution to your customer is the artificial goal Jim was probably referring to.
Author: Lead By Greatness
Thanks for the article. I’m curious what exactly you meant when you mentioned that Mr. Parker lost people on September 11th. Thanks in advance.
Hi David, Sadly, Southwest had employees in the World Trade Center buildings that collapsed.