What Is Servant Leadership? Thoughts from Southwest Airlines President, Colleen Barrett

Sep 20, 2010
5 Min Read

Servant leadership is a leadership theory that focuses more on the followers than the leader him/herself. The concept of servant leadership comes from Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay that he published in 1970, where he wrote:

"The servant-leader is servant first… that person is sharply different from one who is leader first… the difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Perhaps one of the best ways to define servant leadership, though, is to watch one talk about their leadership philosophy. In this video, Colleen Barrett, President of Southwest Airlines describes how she and her company operates.


I want to highlight a few quotes from the video where servant leadership is emphasized:

Servant Leadership in a Company

“We do build our pyramid a bit different… at the top of our pyramid in terms of priority is our employees, and delivering to them proactive customer service. If we do a good enough job of that, they in turn spend their time trying to assure the second most important group on our pyramid – our passengers – feels good about the service they are getting. And if those people feel good enough about it, then they come back for more. And if the passengers come back often enough, that means our third group of customers, in terms of importance, the shareholders are satisfied.” (4:40)

This is exactly upside-down compared to other companies who claim Customer Service as their first priority, but then take actions which illustrate that shareholders and short-term performance are really more important.

Servant Leadership in a Leader

“I am as good as a follower as I am a leader (if I am one)” (11:30)

Servant leaders tend to doubt their leadership and their influence. This is probably because they don't identify with the stereotypical leader.

Servant Leadership in a Team

“When employees have a problem, or when we have employees that see a passenger having a problem, we adopt them, and really work hard to make something optimistic come out of whatever the situation is.” (13:00)

The mission of the team, and the team's overall performance in achieving outcomes in line with that, is overwhelmingly more important than individual contributions. And so it becomes very clear what the correct actions are when the team is faced with a difficult situation.

Servant Leadership in Society

“It’s pretty remarkable in the overall scheme of things if you can say that whatever you do for a living, that you enjoy it, that you contributed in some way and made the world a better place… we’ve helped people achieve dreams.” (14:30)

This meaning in your work, if you can find it, is what transcends transactional relationships between workers and their organizations and really gets stuff done.