Are You Brutally Intolerant With Your Core Values?

At a Chick-Fil-A Leadercast several years ago, Patrick Lencioni told us a story about Southwest Airlines that would cause many CEO’s to cringe or outright panic! Whether you would agree with then CEO Herb Kelleher’s method or not, you will certainly respect his adherence to his company’s core values!

Core Values

Single Greatest Opportunity

Lencioni wrote a book called The Advantage. In this book, he describes what he believes to be the single greatest opportunity for improvement and competitive advantage for today’s organizations, teams, and families. He tells how this opportunity is free and is available to anyone. He also says that this opportunity is virtually untapped in most organizations.

What is this single greatest opportunity? Lencioni says it is “organizational health.”

Organizational Health Defined

Lencioni defines a company that has good organizational health as one that meets the following three criteria:

      1. There is minimal politics and confusion.
      2. There is a high degree of morale and productivity.
      3. There is low turnover among good people.

Brutal Intolerance Around Core Values

While there is certainly too much information in his book to adequately cover here in this post, I do want to touch on one critical element of creating good organizational health. This element is what Lencioni called “a brutal intolerance around the company’s core values.” That is to say that organizationally healthy companies do not tolerate compromise when it comes to their core values. They stand fast.

Core Values Example

Take the example of Southwest Airlines. One of their core values is Humor. They build processes and customer interaction around humor. They hire for it and they inject it throughout their operations. If anyone has ever flown with Southwest, you are aware of this. You just may not have known it is one of their core values.

On a certain flight, one of the flight attendants was running through the pre-flight safety announcements. She made some comment like, “In the event of the need for a water landing, your flight attendant will come by with drinks and towels.” She went on with her funny script and there did not seem to be anything wrong.

Customer Complaint

However, shortly after this flight, CEO Herb Kelleher received a letter from one of the passengers on that flight. She said she was a long-time customer of Southwest Airlines and wanted to voice a complaint about the safety announcements. It was her opinion that the safety of the passengers is nothing to joke about. She let Kelleher know that she felt that she would have to find another airline if that is how Southwest continues to handle safety announcements.

What would you do in this situation? Possibly, you may have written the customer to thank them for their patronage, promising them that your company considers its passengers’ safety a primary concern. Maybe you would have given her a voucher for a discount off of a future flight. Likely, you would have then called someone in training to ask them to tone down the humor when it came to the safety announcements.

Brutal Intolerance

If you would have done any of these things, even close, you would have been a LONG way from what Herb Kelleher did. He did write her a letter. It was not a long letter, though…in fact, it was just three words:

“We’ll miss you.”

What? Is he serious? Isn’t the customer always right? Can he really afford to lose a customer like that?

Evidently, he was serious. Evidently, he understood the incredible power in the core values and he knew it was his job to defend them. Evidently, this strategy works for Southwest in spades! One metric supporting this is their 39 consecutive years of profitability without a loss. Another indicator is that Southwest received 143,143 resumes and only hired 2,188 new Employees in 2010.

Tough Core Values Questions

I have a couple of questions.

Could this strategy work for your company?

What if your company was brutally intolerant when it comes to its core values? What would it look like? What results do you think you would see?

Could it work for you personally?

Take this a step further, what about you personally? As a leader, parent, coach, teacher, etc., what would it look like if you were this committed to your core values…even to the point of death? Would that look like a lunatic? Or would it look more like a true disciple of Jesus?

I promise you I am asking myself the same questions.


Photo by Delpixart / iStock

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  • David

    You know my story, most people don’t, but with my core values, I am called crazy, fanatical, hard core, over the top, and oftentimes a lunatic. Thanks for this post that confirms for me that I’m on the right track.

  • Sometimes, I feel like an outsider as a parent because we push respect and obedience so much with our boys. They even notice the difference between them and “the other kids,” but are starting to appreciate the discipline they now have as young men. Yet, I know I slide in other areas with my core values, usually because I am tired or not feeling well or lose my focus. I can see the value of writing them down as many people recommend. That might solidify them more. I do have a goal of being viewed as “crazy, fanatical, hard core, over the top, and oftentimes a lunatic” as David says. Hard to break out of the cookie cutter shape sometimes.

    • I understand the struggle, Kari! We must keep running the race and trust Him for the strength!

  • When you read a story, the character who stands out is the one who’s remembered. Southwest Airlines seems to be that character in real life. I still remember reading about its core value of encouraging its people to take the initiative. When an airline folded up shop in a prime spot at Chicago O’Hare, while other airlines’ employees waited for the red tape to clear, Southwest employees immediately took the initiative and captured that spot. The worst that could happen is they would be told to move. They weren’t.

    Enjoyed the “We’ll miss you” story. Too many churches today are held hostage by people who say, “Don’t do … or I’m leaving.” If a pastor and congregation know where they are going, if they’ve developed core values and live by them, then it’s a good thing when a person (or people) leave because they don’t want to live and grow in that way.

    • Amen to that, Tom! That did not seem to bother Jesus, did it?

  • Great post and reminder Chris!

  • randygravitt

    Great post CP!

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