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Leader of the Month for June 2006:

Colleen Barrett


Colleen Barrett's story

Colleen gives her mother much of the credit for developing her values. She states, "My mother taught me early the importance of The Golden Rule. She was a terrific role model growing up. We were poor growing up, but I always marveled at my mother’s warm reception for anyone coming into our home. I don’t know how she did it, but she could always set another place for dinner when I didn’t even think there was enough food for us. She taught me altruism, Golden Rule behavior, and to have a giving heart, because there is always someone more in need than you. That epitomizes what servant leadership is all about."

Excerpts from her member profile at the website for the Horacio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans show where Colleen's focus lies. She does not define success merely as a paycheck or a title. Her advice to job seekers is to follow their interests, find a job that inspires them, and to take a job "because you think you have a passion for what that job does." When considering her own life, Colleen says, "For me, success is being able to answer ‘yes’ to the question: Did I make a positive difference today? I know I’m successful when I can give back to someone."

For the focus on others that is a hallmark of her leadership, her ability to focus her efforts on what is meaningful, and the exemplary leadership she provides, Colleen Barrett is the Leader of the Month for June 2006.

About Colleen Barrett

President and Corporate Secretary for Southwest Airlines Co.

Bio: divorced with one grown son, Patrick, and an adorable grandson, Evan; plays mother to two cute American Eskimo dogs, Blubber and Button

Home: Dallas, Texas (native of Bellows Falls, Vermont)

A few of the many honors bestowed upon Colleen include the following: World’s 100 Most Powerful Women by Forbes.com (2005, 2004), 50 Most Powerful Women in Business by Fortune (2003, 2002), Best Managers by BusinessWeek (2002).

Current personal passion: Keeping Southwest Airlines the top airline in terms of Customer Satisfaction. I’m proud we’ve been able, despite tremendous growth, to continue to receive the fewest number of Customer complaints, and I have challenged our almost 32,000 Employees to do their part of make a positive difference with each Customer so that they will keep coming back.

Dream: My personal dream is whenever I can check something off my “to do” list and when I can get the list down to one page! My dream for Southwest is that I do my best to make a positive difference here and provide job security for our Employees and help ensure the Company’s prosperity so that it may grow to provide low fares to millions more people.

Place in the world you most like to visit: San Francisco

Favorite book: Atlas Shrugged. I just related to the main character for some reason.


Lifetime leadership highlights: Watching the first Southwest Airlines plane depart from Dallas Love Field on Sept. 14, 2001, after the tragic Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on our country. I have never been more proud of the servant leadership, stick-to-itiveness, and whatever it takes attitudes of our Employees to come together, stand tall, and show our Customers that we were ready to fly when they were. It was a Herculean feat, but together we showed America it could be done.

Herb Kelleher, co-founder and Executive Chairman of the Board at Southwest Airlines, is a highly-regarded leader. To read a brief leadership lesson Herb learned years ago, click here. Mr. Kelleher hired Colleen Barrett in the 1970s, and a conversation with him yields extensive insights into Colleen Barrett's leadership. On Colleen Barrett's personal attributes: In addition to being an exceptional leader, Colleen has a delightful personality and is fun to be with. On the strengths Colleen brings to the workplace: Colleen is a selfless leader with tremendous altruism that dominates her life. She truly is a servant leader who has a great deal of idealism. Colleen is efficient and very effective at getting things accomplished. She is tremendously devoted to her work and is willing to go to any lengths in an emergency situation to get things done. For example, on innumerable occasions in an emergency situation, she will just stay at Southwest Airlines all night long. She has a tremendous capacity to do a whole lot of things and has wide-ranging interests. Colleen always has a great sense of humor. When coupled with her sensitivity to communications issues, that sense of humor tends to relieve tension and make people feel at ease to speak more openly and frankly about issues and problems. On Colleen's contribution to Southwest Airlines: Colleen is primarily responsible for the humanistic culture that we have at Southwest today, where people really look out for one another. One of the really significant things she did was give our people on the front line a lot of flexibility. Basically, she ascertained that we could not anticipate every situation that would evolve in a given station at a passenger terminal. Therefore, she told our employees--and meant it--that as long as you are leaning toward the customer, you are OK. Our employees quickly learned that Colleen is sincere in everything that she does and that they really could go out of their way for the customer. They did not need to ask permission from anybody to do so. Colleen is also the one who puts together the gatherings that we have. She always likes to get different groups of people together so they understand each other better than they otherwise would. Her methods really enhance our quick-response capability, and Colleen is very quick to act to remedy something that needs to be remedied. She is devoted totally to the welfare of the people of Southwest Airlines and tries to make sure that they are respected and taken care of in their personal lives as well as their business lives. She has always given her whole heart and soul to whatever project she is working on.

Much can be deduced about Colleen by pondering the metaphors Herb Kelleher uses to describe her: Joan of Arc and a blue flame. On Colleen as Joan of Arc: Colleen has been a sort of Joan of Arc for Southwest Airlines, particularly in the fields of hiring and training and employee relations. Colleen is like Joan of Arc because she has that inspirational effect on the people that she deals with: There is nothing that she is not willing to do for the cause or the crusade. She is the first one to undertake a difficult job and truly is a selfless person. On Colleen as a blue flame: Colleen burns with a pure blue flame. Everybody around her recognizes that, and that is the kind of thing that creates trust with people and breeds respect. She follows the credo of dealing with any problem directly, and she is very aggressive and direct in addressing issues. I think people enjoy and respect that, and it does save a lot of time when someone is not afraid of addressing the facts and what the real issues are.

Joyce Rogge, Executive Director of Marketing at Southwest Airlines, has witnessed Colleen Barrett's remarkable leadership. Joyce shares, "The first thing you notice with Colleen is that she is so forthright. She has no hidden agendas and, in the business world, that is so refreshing. She is a very clear communicator; in fact, she is just the epitome of great communication. Besides her great communication skills and the fact that she is just so up front and forthright, she has an incredible instinct for the needs of a customer. Colleen has always run this company in a manner that it puts the customer at the forefront. Whenever we are making decisions about what kinds of products, policies, or promotions we are going to have, we are really thinking about what our customers’ needs are. And the icing on the cake—which is totally unprecedented for leaders in many businesses—is Colleen's unwavering faith and loyalty to the employees of Southwest Airlines. While she is keeping the customers’ needs at the forefront, it’s really the employees that are her first customer. Colleen is absolutely the beating heart of our company for the leadership and inspiration she provides. Beyond all the great things that she does from a business perspective, she is a wonderful, caring friend, too. She treats this whole company and the people who are in it like a family. At her wish, all the walls at our headquarters are covered with employee pictures. It is almost like a family photo album: employee picture after employee picture shows a scrapbook of our lives. Where most corporate headquarters have hoity-toity expensive art, ours is really more about our people because that is who we are, and that is who we cherish. Colleen goes to the extent of putting them on our walls so that the employees can see that. The family feeling so unique to our company is really brought about by Colleen's determination, care and belief. That is why she is the heart of our company."

Roy Spence, president and co-founder of GSD&M Advertising, also comments on Colleen Barrett and her leadership: "The #1 job responsibility of a great leader is to protect the troops, and Colleen Barrett is a five star general of 'people-driven' culture. The leader must weigh what is good for the operations, marketing and financial aspects of a company. When fundamental violations of the purpose and values of the culture of the organization occur, you must have a leader that puts people first. Otherwise, an organization will begin the decline. Integrity must be at the core of a 'people driven' culture. Colleen instinctively understands the whole principle of putting an organization’s people first, both its internal people and its customers."

Colleen Barrett and Leadership

Books recommended for aspiring leaders: I would recommend Be Nice or Else. It is a great lesson that The Golden Rule applies in all areas of business, and that you must never forget the importance of great relationships. I also love Jim Collins’s Good to Great.

be_nice_or_else  good_to_great

Most admired leader: Herb Kelleher, executive chairman of Southwest Airlines. He is a giving person, and he has been a wonderful mentor to me. As a legal secretary, I had no idea how unusual it was to be included in legal strategy and to attend court with the attorneys. His generosity and inclusion allowed me opportunities I didn’t appreciate until much later in life, but those experiences have been guiding lights for me in my professional life.

Advice for aspiring leaders: Follow The Golden Rule, learn from your mistakes, take the initiative, and listen to your heart.

Traits most important in a leader: Be a good listener; be willing to make a positive difference; realize you are there to serve others; and be a consistent and constant communicator.

Where to Go for More About Colleen Barrett