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Leadership Issues: The Case of CEO Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines Evaluation Essay

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Updated: Jan 25th, 2020


Extant literature demonstrates that leaders, through their leadership styles and practices, have the capacity to positively or negatively influence outcomes for business organizations, employees, customers and stakeholders.

Indeed, in the business scene of the 21st century, many organizations have remained afloat in the turbulent business environment due to effective leadership style demonstrated by leaders (Gittell, 2005).

This paper looks into issues related to the leadership style, philosophy and effectiveness of Garry C. Kelly, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Southwest Airlines.


Having spent almost two decades in the management realms of Southwest Airlines as a Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Garry Kelly succeeded James F. Parker as the CEO of the company in 2004.

Several years later, in 2008, Garry became the Chairman of the Board after the eventful retirement of founder, strategist and mentor Herb Kelleher.

Kelly’s most outstanding achievements prior to his elevation to CEO included a successful fuel-hedging initiative that saw the airline sustain profitability and competitiveness, emphasis on the employment on passenger-friendly technology, and other cost-containment measures that to a large extent molded the company to what it is today (Hauck, 2008).

Leadership Style, Philosophy & Alignment with Culture

The CEO’s emphasis on the importance of caring for people and putting employees first demonstrates that he practices servant leadership.

The servant leadership concept was coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf to demonstrate a kind of leadership that requires people to be servants first before aspiring to be leaders, and to assist followers to “grow healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become leaders” (Boone & Makhani, 2012 p. 83).

Garry has been known to advance a leadership style that acknowledges and gives credit to employees by firmly believing that leadership is more a function of people’s relationships than position (Wright & Mujtaba, 2011).

In line with the servant leadership paradigm, Garry not only recognizes that the empowerment of people is an important goal, but also shares with them his vision for the future in addition to communicating the desired strategic direction of the organization with regard to its mission, values and beliefs.

The CEO also demonstrates his moral objective of serving people by showing sensitivity to their concerns, facilitating employees to identify and solve challenges, demonstrating genuine concern for subordinates’ career growth and development by providing support and mentoring, and using actions and words to make it clear to employees that satisfying their work needs is a priority (Lauer, 2010).

The CEO’s philosophy emphasizes “purpose, process, and people [that is], getting people to help define and then align with purpose, developing the processes to accomplish the purpose, and then attracting and maintaining people to push the processes” (Nowicki & Summers, 2007 p. 118).

This philosophy is firmly grounded on putting people first as reinforced by the corporate culture of Southwest.

There is a near perfect alignment between the CEO’s leadership style and the organization’s culture by virtue of the fact that it underlines and reinforces people aspects that inform the corporate culture.

These aspects include flexible workplace environment, recognition and appreciation of employees, group and team decision making, warrior spirit, leading with a Servant’s Heart, and a Fun-LUVing attitude (McGee-Cooper et al., 2008).

Personal & Organizational Values

Extant literature demonstrates that Garry’s personal values of trust in employees, respecting people, caring attitude, vision, clarity, sacrifice, duty, aspiration and higher sense of purpose align well with the organizational values of putting employees first, excellent customer service, teamwork, rewarding employee excellence, enabling employees, customers and neighbors (stakeholders) to interact in an LOVE-filled environment, and doing the right thing as a way of life in Southwest Airlines (Southwest Airlines, 2008; Lauer, 2010).

How Values Influence Ethical Behavior within the Organization

Although employees come with their own values, organizations expect them to internalize and follow the values set by leaders for productivity and organizational competitiveness (Wright & Mujtaba, 2011).

As such, the CEO values mentioned above have influenced ethical behavior within Southwest by role-modeling with the view to developing and implementing a culture of dependable performance, passionate employees, valued customer service, dynamic community development, environmentally responsible decisions, and doing the right thing at the right time (Southwest Airlines, 2008).

Through observing and internalizing the values of the CEO, Southwest employees feel more empowered to act and contribute to the decision making process.

Employees also feel respected and are considered as a core pillar of the company, hence become more determined to serve customers with honesty and integrity while also serving the organization and the community (McGee-Cooper et al., 2008).

The reinforcement of ethical behavior within Southwest can be demonstrated by the fact that the company continues to make huge profits while its competitors are often not only incapable of breaking through, but also continue to be accused of corporate scandals and neglect to the environment.

Strengths & Weaknesses

One of Gary’s key strengths as chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines is predicated upon the capacity to use servant leadership style to foster organizational growth and development.

The CEO is able to achieve this by deviating from the traditional leadership approach of dominating employees to an approach that listens to their concerns, respects their decisions, as well as empowers and inspires them to perform (Lauer, 2010).

Such a leadership orientation leads to organizational growth and development. The second key strength is predicated upon his capacity to use servant leadership to instill in employees virtues of corroboration, teamwork and relationship building.

Extant literature demonstrates that leaders who encourage teamwork and corroboration among employees achieve positive organizational outcomes (Wright & Mujtaba, 2011).

The third key strength is grounded on the CEO’s capacity to develop employees by not pushing organizational goals on them but rather taking time to understand their strengths and weaknesses, with the view to identifying their potential and higher purpose that they could never achieve on their own (Lauer, 2010).

Among the weaknesses, it is clear that Gary will face difficulties when he is forced by market and competitive pressures to downsize employees because servant leadership does not advocate for employee sacking.

The second weakness for Gary arises from the fact that he may fail to persuade employees to follow a particular trajectory in times of great uncertainty and organizational transformation due to the nature of servant leadership.

Lastly, the CEO faces a weakness in disposing the attribute of openness and replacing it with confidentiality to maintain the integrity of employees as well as the organization’s core values and beliefs (Wright & Mujtaba, 2011).

It is plausible to mention that Gary can always fall back to the strong Southwest’s corporate culture to deal with the last two weaknesses.

Quality contributing to Success

The quality that contributes most to the CEO’s success at Southwest Airlines, in my view, is respecting people.

Through demonstrating respect to employees rather than dominating them with the power designated to his position as chairman and CEO, Gary has not only being able to generate strong loyalty, inspiration, commitment and motivation among members of staff, but also instilled in them strong values and belief to continue providing the best in a fun-filled environment that rewards teamwork, excellence and corroboration (Lauer, 2010).

This way, Southwest Airlines has been able to remain profitable and aggressive even in the face of stiff competition.

Communication, Collaboration, Power & Politics

Not only does the leadership of Southwest Airlines encourages open communication between managers and employees in an attempt to demonstrate a caring and responsive attitude towards employees’ needs and aspirations (Wright & Mujtaba, 2011), but it also promotes a team spirit which enables employees to assume complimentary roles and cooperatively work together in sharing responsibility for problem-solving and decision-making processes (Raynor, 2011).

This kind of arrangement has strengthened Southwest’s corporate culture, substantially reduced group and role conflicts, and facilitated employees to give their best in the provision of the required services to the company and in developing their career aspirations to the fullest potential.

As a result, Southwest’s organizational dynamics is typified by trust, commitment, motivation and collaboration, leading to a near perfect alignment of leadership with culture.

Although Gary has formal power vested in his position as the CEO of Southwest Airlines, his leadership approach orients him toward the need for increased collaboration and establishment of personal confidential relationships with employees.

Southwest employees have informal power by virtue of having the needed expertise to be competitive in work-related contexts (Wright & Mujtaba, 2011).

However, they accommodate and submit to the directions given by the CEO, not through the process of domination but by following a set of ethical values and beliefs set by the leaders.

Organizational politics at Southwest is kept at a minimum to facilitate group corroboration and teamwork.

Indeed, the CEO uses the same lens when communicating and interacting with employees to create a sense of equality and fairness in line with the servant leadership approach (Boone & Makhani, 2012).

This way, the company has been able to hold together in its attempt to enhance productivity and competitiveness.


Boone, L.W., & Makhani, S. (2012). Five necessary attitudes of a servant leader. Review of Business, 33(1), 83-96.

Gittell, J.H. (2005). The Southwest Airlines way (1st ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hauck, T.A. (2008). . Web.

McGee-Cooper, A., Trammel, D., & Looper, G. (2008). The power of LUV: An inside peek at the innovative culture committee of Southwest Airlines. Reflections, 9(1), 49-54.

Lauer, C. (2010). Southwest Airline. New York, NY: ABC-CLIO.

Nowicki, M., & Summers, J. (2007). Changing leadership styles. Healthcare Financial Management, 61(2), 118-120.

Raynor, M.E. (2011). Disruptive innovation: The Southwest Airlines case revisited. Strategy & Leadership, 38(4), 31-34.

Southwest Airlines. (2008). . Web.

Wright, A., & Mujtaba, B.G. (2011). Southwest Airlines and management in the modern workplace. Journal of Research in International Business Management, 1(4), 77-84.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Leadership Issues: The Case of CEO Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines'. 25 January.

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