Get Involved | Print Page | Contact Us | Sign In
Legacy of Leadership: Corporate Leader Awardee

Legacy of Leadership: Corporate Leader Awardee

Southwest Airlines – “Reflections on Leadership”

Southwest Airlines is the recipient of the 2019 Corporate Leader Award. Leadership California sat down with Southwest Vice President and Controller Leah Koontz to gain insight into the company’s philosophy on women’s Leadership.

There is no question that developing and supporting women Leaders has been woven into the cultural fabric of Southwest Airlines from the beginning, according to Leah Koontz, Vice President and Controller for the airline.

Southwest truly is unique in many ways, and one story highlights how role models for women in the company has been standard from the beginning.

In the late 60s, Southwest founder Herb Kelleher would take his corporate secretary, Colleen Barrett, everywhere with him. At the time, this practice was unheard of. She learned everything about the company and the business as she traveled with him and ultimately, she rose to became Southwest’s president from 2001-2008 – the only woman to hold that title.

Kelleher believed in looking for the best in people and was dedicated to bringing out the best in them, regardless of gender. As a result, Southwest has always promoted, developed and supported women.

“Companies build resilience when they apply new approaches and broaden opportunity.”

– Leah Koontz

When Kelleher founded Southwest, he didn’t want to be the “most loved” just by customers, but by his employees as well. His vision for Southwest included a company culture that provides employees with a stable work environment and an atmosphere with equal opportunities for all to learn and grow.

Within this culture there is also a philosophy of mentoring and promoting everyone equally. But even with these guideposts in place, Koontz reflected that women are not always as assertive as men in asking for what they want. She says, “They think they must check all the boxes. But women Leaders at Southwest encourage other women to go after what they want and deserve.”

Executive Leadership within Southwest is constantly on the lookout for ways to promote the right Leaders. To do this, the airline goes through formal performance evaluations focused on ensuring good balance within Leadership. They talk about every Leader and share strengths, discussing who can step up and who needs help.

Southwest also has a Diversity and Inclusion department. A director is involved in meetings about how to ensure there is a balance in the company’s Leadership framework.  From our 2017 One Report – “At Southwest, diversity means having a modern and multi-faceted workforce which gives us a key competitive advantage in the national marketplace. Our network is comprised of Employees representing a variety of backgrounds whose individual experiences help form our unique Corporate Culture. Fostering an environment that encourages diversity of ideas, knowledge and actions is paramount to our operational excellence.”

“The sky really is the limit for women leaders at Southwest.”

– Leah Koontz

And they look for innovative ideas to push Leaders into new capacities. For example, three years ago the corporate team needed to manage the large number of speaking requests for the CEO. They decided to prepare and allow others to fill in for those requests. So now Leadership team members are assigned regions where they meet community Leaders and represent the community on the company’s behalf. This allows Leaders to get out of their “expertise silo” and better understand the business and its impact on communities.

Southwest’s commitment to women also extends beyond the company’s walls into the communities they serve. The company supports Leaders and women by building strong partnerships with organizations such as Leadership California. Lidia Martinez, Southwest’s Corporate Manager of Community Affairs and Grassroots, is the best example of the company’s community outreach and is a champion of promoting and advancing women internally and externally. 


Koontz believes, “Companies are stronger if they have different employees with different backgrounds and experiences.” She says that companies build resilience as they apply different approaches and broaden the opportunities. Southwest clearly gets it. Its culture of inclusive Leadership development, integrity, support, and diversity is engrained in the fabric of the company today more than ever.

Women Leaders at Southwest are flying high and so many great women Leaders today know that will continue. The sky really is the limit!

Leadership Lessons from Southwest Airlines

  • Create equal opportunities for learning and growth
  • Do the right thing and live by the Golden Rule
  • Embed diversity in your company culture
  • Look for, and develop, servant leaders