“We used to be civilized” may seem like a strange statement but the following story from 1972 is a wakeup call for the way society has supposedly developed since then. Also this story contains an element that most people might consider as uncivilized. I will leave my readers to judge.

     Imagine the scene: a packed auditorium, a raucous crowd, and two larger-than-life CEOs at the center of attention (right where they were happiest). Only, it wasn’t a TED talk, on on-stage fireside chat, or a staged confrontation between potential political rivals. Instead, it was an arm-wrestling match between the founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, and the CEO of a much smaller airline, Stevens Aviation, Kurt Herwald. They called it the Malice in Dallas, and it took place 30 years ago in March 1992.

     The genesis of the confrontation was the fact that Southwest Airlines had rolled out a new ad campaign using the slogan, “Just Plane Smart.” The problem was that Stevens Aviation was already using exactly the same slogan. Sounds paradise like a lawyers’ dream, and not really the basis for my claim that we used to be civilized, but bear with me.

     Now, as the names alone might tell you: Southwest and Stevens Aviation weren’t exactly in the same business. Southwest, which you likely know if you live in the U.S., was a low-fare passenger carrier and has since become a national carrier. Stevens had more to do with maintenance and charters.

     But, a slogan is a slogan, and one of the basic rules of trademarks is that if you don’t make an effort to defend them, you open yourself up to losing them, legally speaking.

     So, when Herwald realized Kelleher had a reputation for being an irreverent showman, he had an idea. Rather than fight it out in court, where his airline would have been vastly outgunned, Herwald’s airline wrote a letter to Kelleher. It said,

“We LOVE your new ads that use the clever, creative, effective “Plane Smart” theme! We can testify to its effectiveness since we’ve been using it in our own ads for a long time”. In the true fun-loving spirit on which Southwest Airlines was founded, we challenge you to a duel to see who gets to keep “Plane Smart” … (Please—no lawyers!) … We challenge you to a sleeves-up, best-two-out-of-three arm-wrestling match.” We used to be civilized?

     Herwald had Kelleher pegged correctly, and the date was set.

     As a publicity event it was sensational. It was covered by all the national news, and President George H.W. Bush complimented both CEOs on their willingness to settle the dispute like this.

     Southwest later estimated it not only saved $500,000 in legal fees that it would have incurred to defend a lawsuit, according to a review of the event by Harvard Law School (praising it as an exercise in win-win negotiations), but they also got about $6 million in free marketing and public relations.

     As for the wrestling match itself, on paper it should have been a mismatch. Herwald was 38 and had been a champion weight lifter; Kelleher was 61, and a self-described “serious chain smoker,” who slept four hours a night. Kelleher also made a big deal about how his only preparation for the event was to drink more Wild Turkey bourbon.

     In the end, Herwald won, but he gave the right to use the slogan to Southwest anyway. My guess is his airline wasn’t all that invested in it to begin with, and it was probably a better deal for him to gain the long-lasting friendship and mentorship of Kelleher.

     Anyway, we just passed the 30th anniversary, and I think it’s a fun and notable event to remember this story. But really, I think it’s also a good lesson for today, when so many leaders and others are almost eager to let the most minor disputes develop into legal armageddon. Maybe there’s room for humor. Maybe it doesn’t really matter in the long run whether you prevail. And maybe not every dispute has to be a fight to the death.

     You tell me whether we used to be civilized.

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