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

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.













Eva Rykrsmith

Eva Rykrsmith is an organizational psychology practitioner. Her passion lies in bringing a psychology perspective to the business world, with the mission of creating a high-performance environment. Follow her @EvaRykr.

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  • http://www.movingfrommetowe.com KareAnderson

    This post really resonated with me on a personal and work level Eva – thank you!
    It dawned on me that the “old” notion of servant leadership is, in fact, the perfect mind set to be open to bottom-up bubbling of ideas and self-organized teamwork efforts to swiftly respond to a problem or seize an opportunity.

    How apt for our increasingly complex and connected times.

    Since competition can hit faster and from more places, optimizing Southwest’s organizational capacity by encouraging and expecting smart, caring and collaborative behavior from the people you serve (as “top” management) is the most likely way to stay innovative and trusted/valued by your co-workers, customers and other stakeholders.

    I so enjoy your choice of topics and sharing them with others. Kudos again.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.movingfrommetowe.com KareAnderson

    This post really resonated with me on a personal and work level Eva – thank you!
    It dawned on me that the “old” notion of servant leadership is, in fact, the perfect mind set to be open to bottom-up bubbling of ideas and self-organized teamwork efforts to swiftly respond to a problem or seize an opportunity.

    How apt for our increasingly complex and connected times.

    Since competition can hit faster and from more places, optimizing Southwest’s organizational capacity by encouraging and expecting smart, caring and collaborative behavior from the people you serve (as “top” management) is the most likely way to stay innovative and trusted/valued by your co-workers, customers and other stakeholders.

    I so enjoy your choice of topics and sharing them with others. Kudos again.

    [Reply]

    Eva Rykr Reply:

    Nice connection. That makes me want to add generational stereotypes as another external influence — younger and future generations will be drawn to servant leadership styles.

    [Reply]

  • Dhawe

    Servant Leadership is an excellent practice in all aspects of life. However, the origin is from two millennium ago and then paraphrased by Mr. Greenleaf.

    Mark 9:35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

    [Reply]

  • http://www.movingfrommetowe.com KareAnderson

    Yes, I think some younger people are being drawn to servant leadership. Those under 30 are more likely to have played and studied in groups + that makes servant leadership feel more natural. One ongoing concern I have is that this continuing wobbly economy is exacerbating the differences in quality of education along class/financial lines and that may well affect life choices and values. So many ways to slice the study eh Eva? I often think that economics + parents’ education level are a major determining factor in choices. One leveler is opportunities where diverse people have the opportunity/requirement to work with people very different than them: helps cultivate open mind, innovation, flexibility – and capacity to collaborate – all such essential traits in this increasingly complex, connected and bottom up world.

    [Reply]

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  • http://twitter.com/RalfLippold Ralf Lippold

    Amazing to follow Colleen’s speaking!

    I can recall a very personal experience with
    SouthWestAirlines a couple of weeks ago,
    http://bit.ly/cAZJYi (it hasn’t been in the
    air ;-) ).

    Best regards and a Merry Xmas
    Ralf

    [Reply]

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