Colleen Barrett

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Colleen Barrett
Colleen Barrett.jpg
Receiving the Tony Jannus Award in 2007
President Emerita of Southwest Airlines
Assumed office
President of Southwest Airlines
In office
Preceded byHerb Kelleher
Succeeded byGary C. Kelly
Personal details
Born(1944-09-14)September 14, 1944
Bellows Falls, Vermont, U.S.

Colleen C. Barrett (born September 14, 1944) is the President Emerita of Southwest Airlines, and an influential figure in the founding and development of the company. In 2001 she became the first woman to serve as president of a major airline.

Personal life[edit]

Barrett was born in 1944 to a lower-income family in Bellows Falls, Vermont.[1] She attended the Worcester campus of Becker College, where she graduated in 1964 with a two-year degree to become a legal secretary.[2] In 2015, she donated US$1 million to her alma mater for the founding of a center for innovation and entrepreneurship.[2] The center opened in April 2018.[3]

Barrett has one son. Her marriage ended in divorce, leaving her to raise her son alone.[4]

While president of Southwest Airlines, Barrett was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was successfully treated with surgery and radiation treatment.[4]

Barrett is a devout Christian, and cites her faith as a major influence on her leadership style and career.[5]


Legal secretary[edit]

In 1968, several years after graduating from Becker, Barrett got a job as a legal secretary working for Herb Kelleher when he was a young lawyer at Wilbur Matthews’ law firm in San Antonio.[6][7] Kelleher had a reputation as a skilled, but chronically disorganized lawyer, whose office was in such disarray that a night guard at the firm once called the police assuming a break in had occurred. Barrett's first duty was to set up a filing system to organize ten years-worth of his case files.[7] She grew to play a pivotal role in keeping Kelleher organized, setting him up for his eventual success as both a lawyer and businessman over their 51-year working relationship.[6] Despite the title of secretary, Barrett was treated as an equal and trusted advisor who regularly joined Kelleher in court.[4][1] When Kelleher left Matthews’ law firm to help found the law firm of Oppenheimer, Rosenberg, Kelleher & Wheatley in 1970, Barrett moved with him.[4][7]

In 1967, Kelleher had met with Rollin King, who had pitched the initial business plan for Southwest Airlines and the two had begun their efforts to begin the company. Kelleher's role was largely focused on serving as legal counsel to the new airline during the many early court battles the airline faced before beginning service.[7] Barrett was closely involved with every step of the legal process.[1] After four years of court battles they succeeded and the first Southwest Airlines flight finally took off June 18, 1971.[8] For the first seven years of operation, Kelleher and Barrett supported Southwest through continued legal support as Kelleher remained an active lawyer, though also with a seat on the Southwest board. However, after a leadership restructure in 1978, Kelleher became chairman of the board and temporary CEO (becoming full-time CEO in 1981).[1][8][9] Kelleher brought Barrett with him once again and she remained his secretary and advisor. When they transitioned to Southwest full-time, they both took a leave of absence from the Oppenheimer law firm that technically was never cancelled the remainder of their careers.[1]

Early leadership at Southwest[edit]

Barrett's level of authority at the airline quickly grew. At first this authority came simply from the high level influence she had with Kelleher as his secretary, though she eventually gained more formal recognition as Vice President of Administration in 1986[10] and a position on the Executive Planning Committee.[4][7] She was promoted to Executive Vice President of Customers in 1990.[10] Barrett described her transition to true leadership as a gradual process, and for several years even after she had been promoted beyond an assistant to Kelleher she had to occasionally remind board members and other senior leaders at the company that she was a distinct leader and not "just a parrot of what Herb thinks".[4] Despite Kelleher's role as the more public face of the company, employees universally referred to "Herb and Colleen" together as the leaders of the company.[4][7]

Barrett has been credited with helping fundamentally shape Southwest's customer service strategy, employee culture, and leadership philosophy.[1][11][12] She is commonly referred to as the airline industry's "Queen of Hearts" for her focus on corporate values and service.[6][10][13] During her time in leadership she made an effort to personally respond to correspondence from every customer who wrote to the company.[7][14] She also contributed to the airline's fuel hedging strategy.[1][11]

President of Southwest[edit]

In March 2001 Kelleher, who had been serving as Chairman, CEO, and President, retired from the latter two positions, passing the CEO role to James Parker and the president role to Barrett, who was also made chief operating officer.[5][15] With this promotion, she became the first and then-only woman to hold the office of president at a major airline, and the highest ranking woman in the world of aviation.[10][16][17]

Barrett's term as president was met with immediate challenges. She started by inheriting a difficult labor dispute with the Transport Workers Union of America representing Southwest ground operations agents.[15] Later during her first year the airline industry was largely crippled by the effects of the September 11 attacks. Barrett's leadership at this time was crucial. She decided to immediately pull Southwest's light-hearted television advertisements and replace them with patriotic-themed ads in which she personally starred to reassure the public; Southwest was the only major airline to be profitable in the fourth quarter of that year and did not lay off any employees in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.[5]

Barrett's leadership was not without some missteps along the way. She has acknowledged the failure of her effort to create bereavement fares at the airline.[13] She generated some criticism for the airline in 2007 when she publicly defended an employee's decision to forbid a customer from boarding a flight for wearing a mini-skirt.[18]

Overall, Barrett's tenure as president was very successful. While most of Southwest's competitors faced service cuts, bankruptcy, or ceased operations during her term of leadership, Southwest remained profitable and grew to the largest carrier of domestic passengers. The airline also consistently had the fewest complaints according to the Department of Transportation, an accomplishment largely credited to Barrett's focus on customer service.[14][19]

President emerita[edit]

In 2008, Barrett stepped down as president of the airline, passing the title to then-CEO Gary C. Kelly. Kelleher passed his title as Chairman to Kelly at the same time. Barrett and Kelleher were titled, respectively, President Emerita and Chairman Emeritus.[4][20] They both chose to remain with the company. Barrett enjoyed returning to a regular employee role and continued to work in customer service and employee development roles for the next 5 years.[4] Though she and Kelleher stepped away from day-to-day involvement in 2013, she remains involved with the airline in her emeritus role.[6]

Leadership style[edit]

Barrett is well known for her focus on servant leadership. She focuses on egalitarian principles and treating all employees equally. Her general philosophy is that if you treat your employees well, they will treat your customers well, who in turn will come back and treat your share-holders well.[19] She is a strong believer in the Golden Rule, and had it posted visibly in all Southwest locations.[4][5] She has focused on hiring for fit over skill.[13]

Barrett has written a book with Ken Blanchard on her leadership philosophy titled Lead with LUV.[12]

Awards and recognitions[edit]

Barrett has stated, "You can't do things to get accolades; you do things because they are the right thing to do."[19] Nonetheless, she has been the recipient of numerous honors throughout her career, including the following:

  • 2004 and 2005: Ranked by Forbes as one of the 100 most powerful women[5][11]
  • 2005: Inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame
  • 2007: Recipient of the Outstanding Women in Aviation award[1]
  • 2007: Recipient of the Tony Jannus Award, the first woman to receive this recognition[21]
  • 2015: The Colleen Barrett Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Becker College named in her honor[2][3]
  • 2016: Recipient of the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy[10]
  • The Colleen Barrett Award for Administrative Excellence is named in her honor[22]
  • Listed by Women in Aviation as among the 100 most influential women in aviation[17]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Southwest Airlines' Colleen Barrett Flies High on Fuel Hedging and 'Servant Leadership'". Knowledge at Wharton. July 9, 2008. Retrieved October 15, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Kievra, Bob (January 13, 2015). "Becker College gets $1M from alumna Colleen Barrett to create innovation center". Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved October 15, 2019.
  3. ^ a b "Becker College Officially Opens the Colleen C. Barrett Center". Becker College. Retrieved October 15, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Maxon, Terry (July 17, 2008). "Even more of Colleen Barrett". The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved October 15, 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d e Klett, Leah MarieAnn (January 12, 2019). "Southwest Airlines: How faith, servant leadership of Colleen Barrett led to company's massive success". The Christian Post. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d Freiberg, Kevin; Freiberg, Jackie (January 24, 2019). "Remembering Herb Kelleher: He Was Our Kind Of Crazy". Forbes. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Jarboe Russell, Jan (January 20, 2013). "A Boy and His Airline". Texas Monthly. No. April 1989. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  8. ^ a b "Southwest Airlines' legendary co-founder Herb Kelleher dies at 87". RelatedNews. January 4, 2019. Archived from the original on January 4, 2019. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  9. ^ Maxon, Terry (June 27, 2014). "Southwest Airlines co-founder Rollin King passes away". The Dallas Morning News. Archived from the original on November 2, 2016. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  10. ^ a b c d e "Colleen Barrett to receive Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy". General Aviation News. September 28, 2016. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  11. ^ a b c "Forbes Power Women 2005: #52 Colleen Barrett". Forbes. 2005. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  12. ^ a b Blanchard, Ken; Barrett, Colleen. Lead With LUV. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Polvera Publishing. ISBN 978-0-13-703974-6.
  13. ^ a b c Tedeschi, Diane. "From Secretary to Company President". Air & Space Magazine. No. January 2017. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  14. ^ a b Davis Sekula, Robyn (January 1, 2007). "How Colleen Barrett builds a culture of high-flying spirit to fuel growth at Southwest Airlines". Smart Business National. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  15. ^ a b Hirsch, Jerry (March 20, 2001). "Southwest CEO to Step Down; Successor Named". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on July 12, 2017. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  16. ^ "Southwest celebrates first 'unmanned' flight on new airplane". Fox 5 Atlanta. October 20, 2017. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  17. ^ a b "100 Most Influential Women in the Aviation and Aerospace Industry". Women in Aviation International. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  18. ^ Jordan, Jaime S. (September 14, 2007). "Southwest apologizes to passenger, launches `mini-skirt' campaign". Dallas Business Journal. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  19. ^ a b c Arnoult, Sandra (February 28, 2015). "Colleen Barrett talks Herb, go-go boots and service with a smile". Runway Girl Network. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  20. ^ ATW Plus (May 21, 2008). "Southwest, AirTran CEOs become chairmen". Air Transport World. Archived from the original on January 7, 2015. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  21. ^ Ranson, Lori (April 6, 2007). "Barrett Becomes First Female To Win Tony Jannus Award". Aviation Week Network. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  22. ^ "San Francisco/Bay Area Executives are Recognizing the Importance of Their Administrative Teams, Thanks to the 'Academy Awards for Admins'". PR Newswire. August 28, 2019. Retrieved October 22, 2019.

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