Leadership and a Quart of Bourbon a Day

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Books and speakers and motivational posters tell us to copy what great leaders do so we can be great too. Whenever I hear that advice, I think about Herb Kelleher.

The founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines changed the industry. He made it possible for more people to fly than ever before. He also created and led an airline that had both the lowest fares and the highest profits in the business. People who worked at Southwest loved him.

He was also a chain-smoking, bourbon-drinking man who once arm wrestled another CEO to settle a lawsuit. Some accounts of his bourbon drinking say that he drank a quart of Wild Turkey every day.

If I did that, I’d live out that line from Toby Keith’s song, “Weed with Willy.” I’d be in the fetal position with drool on my chin.

So, what do you copy? That’s a big question. You can learn a lot from watching the behaviors of great leaders, but you must be picky about what you adopt.

Copy What Adds Value

If you want to copy something from Herb Kelleher, pick the way he treated employees. He said if you treat them as customers, they’ll treat your outside customers well and the profits will come.

While you’re picking what behaviors to copy, don’t fall into the trap of using a great leader’s bad behavior to justify your own. I’ve heard abusive bosses say that what they did was okay, because the young Steve Jobs did it. Well, the older Steve Jobs didn’t, and you shouldn’t either.

Copy What Makes You Better

Copy the things that make you a better person and a better leader. If you want to copy something from Herb Kelleher, it might be that he laughed a lot. He wasn’t facing the easiest life or the smallest challenges. But he laughed a lot.

A lot of great leaders keep a journal. Maybe you should try that. You may find that a journal is the perfect place for you to bring together all your leadership and personal development activities.

But journaling may not work for you. It doesn’t work for everyone. Copy things leaders do that make you better but remember that not everything will work. You’ll have to ditch some. You’ll have to modify others.


Be careful about copying great leaders.

Don’t copy idiosyncrasies.

Don’t use a great leader’s bad behavior to justify your own.

Copy things that add value.

Copy things that make you better. Then, keep what works and ditch or change what doesn’t.

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What People Are Saying

Sean Glaze   |   22 Sep 2020   |   Reply

Love the article, and applaud the valuable takeaway message.
It bud tempting to adopt what we see successful people doing… but the best leaders learn to adapt the pieces that fit their needs and culture.

Wally Bock   |   22 Sep 2020   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind words, Sean. It IS really tempting to copy what looks like success without thinking about how to adapt it to our style and situation. That’s true for copying successful people and successful companies.