Stay true to your identity

Yesterday we had the fortune of producing a live, interactive event with Pat Lencioni and Colleen Barrett, recently retired and President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines (although by her own admission she is having a hard time backing off from being involved in day to day operations.)  Colleen was a joy to work with – generous with her time and thoughtful to everyone at the studio.  She even stayed for an extra hour to participate in an interview we recorded for our leadership development video library.

All of the stories and lessons were valuable but one in particular sticks in my mind.  Years ago, a customer on SW Airlines wrote an angry letter to Herb Kelleher stating that she was appalled at the lack of severity and importance a steward showed while giving the standard safety talk before take-off.  Evidently the SW steward made some jokes about handing out towels and drinks in the unfortunate event of a water landing.  Ha ha.  Well, the customer wrote to Herb that she was shocked, dismayed, etc. etc.  Herb wrote back:
Dear Ms. [customer name],
We’ll miss you.
Herb Kelleher

He wasn’t being petulant, he just meant to say that Southwest takes fun seriously and that they were unwilling to compromise their identity and values.  Fun is part of the Southwest identity.  A more likely response elsewhere might have been for the Legal department to advise HR to advise the Crew Chief to advise the airline stewards to knock-off the jokes before take-off.  Colleen’s point in the story is that if you acquiesce to every customer request you wind up closer and closer to mediocre, closer and closer to bland.  Bland isn’t outstanding, and it isn’t anywhere near a unique voice and identity.  It’s like Jeffrey Pfeffer’s point about benchmarking – if you spend your time benchmarking what everyone else is doing, you end up in the middle, which again isn’t anywhere near excellence.

The lesson doesn’t just apply to business of course.  While Pat Lencioni was getting make-up on for the show I admitted to him I hadn’t read his most recent book, The Three Big Questions For a Frantic Family (he now has four kids 10 and under!) and could he please give me the elevator version.  One of the three questions is: What makes your family unique?  Forget about keeping up with the Joneses and ask yourself and your family what is it about us that make our identity unique and that we treasure.