Colleen Barrett is perhaps the most memorable person I met in 2010. She’s the President Emerita and Corporate Secretary (how that’s for a title?) of Southwest Airlines, and the only woman of her ranking at a major US airline.
I had the opportunity to learn some key leadership lessons from her at this year’s ASTD international conference. Her session with Ken Blanchard really stuck with me, “Bringing Love to Leadership: Servant Leadership in Action at Southwest Airlines.”
Colleen isn’t the typical power executive, with her flowing silver ponytail and wearing a sweater covered with embroidered hearts.
In a soft-spoken style, she delivered a powerful message about living leadership and values – and it’s why Southwest is the only US airline in the past decade to grow and sustain profitability.
What can our organizations learn? I’ll share with you 3 areas key to Southwest’s success:
1. Put it in reverse. At most companies, the pecking order of importance goes something like this: shareholders first, then customers, and then employees.
But what if the order was reversed?
At Southwest, the leader’s role is to serve the company’s top priority – employees. That employee-leader relationship is the basis for serving the next priority group – passengers. Do this well, and the third priority group is happy – shareholders.
The part that makes this approach really work? It’s not a boardroom secret! It’s public knowledge.
2. “Everyone’s a leader at Southwest.” That was one of the first things Colleen said. Notice that statement didn’t say, “Everyone’s an executive,” or “Everyone’s a manager.”
There are many working definitions of leadership, but at Southwest, leadership is a way of life and not a positional title. Employees are seen as leaders, and they’re empowered to make decisions that directly affect the customer, and in turn, the bottom line.
What would change at your organization if people were encouraged to be leaders regardless of title?
3. Define – and live – your operating values. What are the values by which your organization runs on a daily basis? There are three at Southwest. Colleen’s perspective was that 2 or 3 at most work well, because they are more memorable.
Curious to know Southwest’s operating values, safety aside? They fit into one easy phrase:
A warrior’s spirit, a servant’s heart, and a fun loving attitude
In other words, always work hard and with dedication, always serve first and lead second, and always bring the fun.
What would change at your organization with an operating values phrase like that?