On September 9, 2011, we had the unique opportunity to hear Colleen Barrett (President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines) speak about Servant Leadership at our monthly North Texas Coaches meeting. Unlike most leadership presentations, this was an open forum where she encouraged us to ask her what we really wanted to know. I have to smile as I think about my experience with this event. It began with logistical emails back and forth with her team as I sat on a Southwest Airlines (SWA) plane from Dallas to Houston. When they realized I was on a SWA flight, I immediately received heartfelt emails thanking me for being a customer, signed with lines of “X’s and O’s.” That was truly a first for me in a business setting. And quite fittingly, the event itself ended with more Luv. As I thanked Colleen on stage, she gave me a big kiss on the cheek while she endearingly adjusted the back of my suit jacket and said, “I just couldn’t let you walk around like that.”
In the hour she spent with us, Colleen shared story after story in such an authentic style, all in the spirit of teaching us what she has learned over the years. As you know, she and Herb Kelleher successfully planted the seeds that have grown a culture that truly differentiates Southwest Airlines from its competitors, driving results in a challenging industry. So, today I want to share a few of Colleen’s pearls of wisdom.
Colleen began by telling us that serving first is the backbone of Servant Leadership, a philosophy core to her management and leadership style. This means that servant leaders think about others’ needs first and ask, “How can I help?” Colleen views this as key to understanding how to motivate and develop employees and get results. By serving others and following the Golden Rule (i.e., Treat others as you would like to be treated), leaders build true followership.
Do What You Luv
Colleen spoke about the importance of loving what you do, what she called “combing your advocation and your vocation.” For her, the past 40+ years in the airline industry have been about customer service, something she wholeheartedly thrives on. She reminded us that life is short, and that we should not underestimate the importance of doing what we love. We inherently know that tapping into what we enjoy brings out our natural creativity and elevates performance.
You Can Learn from Anyone
Colleen also reminded us that great ideas can come from anywhere. As leaders, when we let go of the hierarchy and adopt a learning mindset, we can naturally and easily bring out ideas from others. Colleen also emphasized the power of noticing the small cues, like body language, which can teach us volumes about what people really think.
Do the Right Thing
By the end of her presentation, Colleen had us all in tears. She closed with a moving story in which employee after employee at SWA had jumped through hoops, working around at least four major rules and government regulations, to do the right thing for a passenger in a dire family situation.
She used her example to highlight the power of doing the right thing, even if that means bending or breaking the rules. Colleen explained that the SWA culture empowers employees to do what they feel is right in a given situation – to use their own judgment, take a risk, and potentially make a mistake. Although SWA has a forgiving culture, they do stand firm about what matters most - employee attitudes and customer service.
As you might guess, we left the session sniffling and inspired. If you want to learn more about how Servant Leadership can drive results, take a look at Colleen’s new book co-authored with Ken Blanchard, Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success.