Leadership and Communication

Leadership and Communication

Barrett shares the belief that there is no one prescription for effective leadership. "The key to being the most effective leader is to build an organization or team with people who want to subscribe to and follow your style, philosophies, and behaviors," she says. "In other words, you can have a great leader at one organization who would be a dismal failure at another." Barrett credits the leadership of co-founder and chairman Herb Kelleher with making Southwest what it is today. (Kelleher turned over the airline's day-to-day operations to Barrett and CEO Jim Parker in June 2001.)

In addition to what has undoubtedly been a sure and cautious hand in directing the airline's financial moves ("We've been managed and led for thirty-two years to realize that we need to be managing for the worst of times during the best of times"), Barrett points to Kelleher's humanitarian leadership. "Part of the success of Southwest has been because Herb is such an all-inclusive person," she says.

We wouldn't even have titles here if the world didn't dictate that we have them. In Herb's mind, the team is just sort of all on the same level. He'll ask everyone and anyone for their opinions and their thoughts—I'm not saying that he won't mull it over and make a decision finally on his own, but he's all-inclusive in terms of sharing thoughts and soliciting opinions.

Barrett's own philosophy on communication has a similar egalitarian bent. She believes that the most important aspect of good communication is to reach out to people in every way possible:

You can write five thousand memos, and if the person isn't one who learns or wants to communicate on a piece of paper, you've wasted your time because they won't read it and they won't respond to it. So we overkill: we do things on paper, we do things on e-mail, we do things on video we communicate to death. There is not anyone here who could ever say that he or she doesn't get updated frequently on anything in which they have an interest.

Southwest also improves communication by requiring that managers spend at least one day per quarter in the field, in a department and with an employee that they don't ordinarily work with. Finally, Barrett is a stickler for timeliness when it comes to internal communication:

We follow the exact same philosophies in terms of turnaround time for our internal communications as we do our external. We have goals, and I really hold people accountable on those. I think that the timeliness of the communication is almost as important as the communication itself. So that's something that I've been almost dictatorial about—I will not excuse late responses.

Defining Your Expectations

When asked about her formula for building an organization like Southwest's, Barrett stresses the importance of defining expectations. As with all things at Southwest, Barrett says that clearly defining expectations is equally important at the internal level as well as the external.

I think one of the reasons that Southwest has such loyalty from its passengers and employees is because we tell people very clearly what they can expect to get from us. And we don't purport to be all things to all people. And we don't make excuses for what we're not. I think one of the reasons that our customers are so accepting about the simplicity of our operation is because we take the time to tell them why we operate differently from other carriers, and why that results in a lower fare to them as the user. Also, I've never thought that any employee should ever be surprised at being disciplined or fired. If they are, that's when I call the supervisor or manager, because they haven't clearly defined what the expectation was.

And not surprisingly, Barrett then returns to the concept of accountability as a critical success factor.

You have to religiously hold yourself accountable first and then hold everyone else accountable. You simply cannot make exceptions to accountability. I have no problem in being able to put the personal feelings about someone on one shelf and the accountability rating of someone's contributions and responsibilities to the company on another. I can—and I think everyone should—be able to look a friend in the eye and say, "You haven't performed to our expectation. I don't like you any less, we can still be friends, but I cannot sit here and sign a merit increase for you or sign promotional paperwork for you because you haven't earned it." I think that the higher up that people move in organizations, the more people want to turn their head. I just don't think you can do that.

It seems simple: Tell people what they can expect from you and what you expect of them. Hold yourself accountable for what's expected of you, and then make sure others do the same. It's as clear a prescription as any for true stakeholder-ship. As Southwest says, it's a company of people, not planes. People are the airline's most important asset. And how do its employees know this? Because that's the way they are treated. It's a simple expression of the integrity that's at the heart of all Accountable Organizations.


  1. According to President and COO Colleen Barrett, Southwest's commitment to its employees is "as critically important as any commitment to our shareholders." Do you agree or disagree with this philosophy, and why?

  2. At your company, is the customer always right? What are the pros and cons of this position in terms of trust, both external and internal?

  3. Think about common customer service issues encountered by employees at your company. Ideally, to what extent should employees be empowered to decide the "right" thing to do in these situations?

  4. How clear is your organization about expectations—both in terms of what is expected of its employees and what customers can expect from the company? What is the impact on employee and customer trust?