Leadership analysis of Southwest Airlines

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Southwest Airlines is one of the most famous domestic airlines in the USA and is a leader of low cost airline service, having it’s headquarter in Dallas, Texas. The main target market for Southwest Airlines is the market for short distance travellers and leisure travellers. The airlines own 520 types of aircrafts out of the 737 types and serve 411 cities within the USA nonstop. It also provides airline services to the business travellers preferring low cost service and freight transportation as well. The success of Southwest Airlines lies in the corporate leadership and strategic management which are stipulated in the visionary statement of the company itself. The company is majorly focused around its two most important stakeholders; employees and customers. Hence, the success of Southwest Airlines is driven by its commitment to provide the customers with the highest level of service and training its workforce to deliver just that. This is the major reason for the 35 years of company’s success as it has delivered its core philosophy and vivid strategic management that has endured all the economic downturns (Box 2009).

Theories of Leadership

Systems Approach

According to Gibson, organization is a system which has elements which establish the relationship with each other. Hence the organization is similar to an operating machine in totality containing inputs and producing outputs whereby the role of the leader is to set objectives and goals and lead the entire organization with all its elements to the attainment of these goals (Robins and Judge 2007).

Contingency Theories

According to these theories, the situational factors are essential to determine which type of leadership will be the most effective for the organization. Hence, no one leadership style can be assumed to be the best unless other variables like leadership style, environment and attitudes of the workers are analysed. Fiedler proposed that both the task oriented leadership and relationship oriented leadership exhibit personality characteristics of the leader and thus success depends on these human dimensions. It was argued that a leader cannot use both the models at the same time and the choice of the model will depend on the personality of that leader. Choosing the leadership model based on the personality also means that the leader will be more comfortable and confident.  Hence, this supports the earlier findings of Weber which also claimed that a leader is one who leads with confidence, respect and has a fundamental power structure that is reflected in his subordinates (Robins and Judge 2007).

Path Goal Theory

The Path Goal Theory assumes that the effectiveness of a leader can be determined by the influence they have on their followers. As proposed by Robert House, leaders are effective because of the positive influence on their followers’ motivation, performance and satisfaction. The directive behaviour of a leader induces that the subordinates are aware of what is expected of them. Supportive leaders will make sure that they stand equal to their workers; participative leaders encourage their workers to participate in decision making. They incorporate the ideas and suggestions of their subordinates to reach conclusions. Lastly, achievement oriented leaders set goals and objectives and encourage subordinates to reach these expectations. Hence, the path goal theory incorporates the transformational leader to motivate and transform the organization (Ford 1977).

Transformational Theories

Transformational leaders have a perspective to transform and positively change the team structure and so they take great pride in “developing strong leaders” which means that they associate the success of their followers with the achievement of company’s goals. These leaders create opportunities for followers to learn and deliver a proactive leadership style (Robins and Judge 2007). This can be achieved by adopting a leadership approach that is powerful and well directed leadership which ensures that all individuals working for the organization are aligned towards achieving the strategic goals of the company on the basis of the fulfilment of the functional goals identified by the company for them. This will require integration and coordination between different members and ensuring that due consideration is given to all individuals and their abilities so that it can instigate intellectual stimulation. The most likely outcome of the transformational leadership is the creation of effective teams within the organizations which make way for four way communication and understanding of objectives set out for the company’s business (Hoffman and Bynum 2011).

Management Theories

One of the early theorists, Henri Fayol proposed the five elements which are critical to all managers in an organization which are to plan, organize, command, coordinate and control. Building upon this theory, Mc Gregor’s Theory X proposed that the workers generally dislike work and will avoid it as much as they can hence it is the job of a manager or the leader to motivate these employees with respect to not only the monetary motivational factors but also human dimensions which are essential (Robins and Judge 2007).

Hence, typically transactional leaders take an approach which is based on linking the performance of individuals at work with the value of rewards or punishments that could be offered or imposed upon them. In this way, employees can be induced to perform better in order to achieve the visionary goals of the organization. Such leaders make use of two methods of learning namely classical conditioning and operant conditioning in order to improve the productivity of the workers. Using extrinsic means of motivating employees they aim to achieve higher return for the business. With this style of leadership companies can clearly establish goals to be achieved and the roles that individuals are responsible for to ensure that these goals can be achieved in the best possible manner (Robins and Judge 2007).

Industry analysis; the Case of Toyota

Automobile industry has metamorphosed to a constantly changing and developing industry model. The need for constant innovation has imposed great challenges to the leadership in this industry which faces not only major challenges but also questions the validity of the early theories that seem redundant. Hence, companies in this industry like Ford motor and Toyota have stipulated dynamic models of leadership that represent the exemplary and effective leadership that has cross industry implications in a highly changing environment (Brian 2010).

Toyota Motor Corporation has been recently plagued with many communication problems which resulted in detrimental moral and ethical practices by Toyota. Toyota, previously known for its model of efficiency, has experienced some debilitation in its long established reputation. The main reason for this crisis in Toyota has been the corporate culture of Japan developed by Japanese leaders causing many ethical and moral challenges. In the Japanese culture, flow of information is too slow and sometimes almost nonexistent as the employees hold back information to not share it with their bosses who do not want to hear it or simply do not have a framework that tells them how to report such problems. The common Japanese practice thus is to squash the bad news before it makes its way to the press (Brian 2010).

However, to solve this crisis, the President, Akio Toyota, made every effort to meet the communication challenge because of which many families lost their members as the cars accelerated out of their control. The President spoke to the families himself to grant his condoles cense and set a public address at the Capitol Hill to answer the questions of the antagonised families for a session of three hours. So despite the immense technological advancement Toyota experienced, it was unable to develop proper databases for the communication aspect of quality management, something it did eventually to resolve the problem which cost Toyota millions of dollars (Brian 2010). Hence the effective leadership at Toyota played an imperative role in managing a hostile situation.

Analysis of Leadership at Southwest Airlines

The definitions of leadership have been very capable of application to the Southwest Airlines. At southwest, leadership is more of a lifestyle, culture and commitment and hence is applied in totality. The participative role of the leadership has encouraged the employees of Southwest to contribute positively in terms of ideas and suggestions. It has not only motivated the employees but also made them a fundamental part of the organization which is reflected in its lowest turnaround rates in the industry. There is not just one leader at Southwest, as the belief of the organization is a single person cannot be considered a leader because all the employees are an embodiment of leadership so titles are not meant to differentiate. Hence, team work and collective effort is given most significance (Looper 2008).

Initially, poor communication occasionally resulted in complexity and a low morale of the entire organization in its initial years. But the leaders facilitated an access to information and a facilitated flow of information and encouraged employees to develop a direct and an open relationship with the co-workers by preferring face-to-face means of communication and preferably on the first name basis. This is because the corporate culture at Southwest Airlines developed by its leadership that pertains to empowering employees with the critical information so that they can make quick fixes to significant problems (Box 2009)

Southwest Airlines has kept its focus on the regional and national airline service which has enabled it to maintain its position as the cost leader in the American airline industry. These tactics include getting passenger seats on first come first serve basis and the humorous commentary during the journey. Southwest Airlines has been recognised as the airline experiencing the fewest customer complaints. This success has been rendered to the unprecedented discipline reflected in its leadership and strategy management. As a result it has been the industry leader which has offered customers with most affordable packages, providing its employees with career development opportunities and job security.

Leadership has adopted cost minimization as top priority. The airlines do not serve meals, and a maximum of 20 minutes is allotted to the turnaround at the passenger gate to keep the costs 22% lower than that of the industry average and the operating margin thrice as much as the industry (Looper 2008).


The top leadership at Southwest Airlines has been commendable in terms of implementing the vision and mission of the company to lower levels of management. Herb Kelleher, who was the Co-founder and a former CEO of the Southwest airlines, has been recognised as the greatest organizational leaders who accomplished the success though his charismatic, collaborative leadership. He has been able to motivate his employees to articulate the visionary goals and objectives of the organization on the whole and hence the turnaround rate for Southwest is the lowest in the US airline industry (Box 2009).

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  1. Box, T.M., 2009. Southwest Airlines 2007. Journal of the International Academy of Case Studies Vol. 15, pp.21-27.
  2. Brian, R., 2010. Toyota Recall: Reports of Runaway Cars. [Online] Available at: <http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/RunawayToyotas/runaway-toyotas-problem-persists-recall/story?id=9618735> [Accessed 29 October 2011].
  3. Ford, J.D., 1977. The Path Goal Theory of Leader Effectiveness: An Operant Interpretation. Academy of Management Review Vol. 2, pp.398-411.
  4. Hoffman, B.J. & Bynum, B.H., 2011. Person-Organization Value Congruence: How Transformational Leaders Influence Work Group Effectiveness. Academy of Management Journal Vol. 54, pp.779-96.
  5. Looper, G., 2008. The Power of LUV: An Inside Peek at the Innovative Culture Committee of Southwest Airlines. Reflections Vol.9, pp.49-54.
  6. Robins, S.P. & Judge, T.A., 2007. Organizational Behaviour (12th Edition). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  7. Spencer, P.E., 1995. Educator Insights: Euro Disney– What Happened? What Next? Journal of International Marketing Vol. 3, pp.103-14.
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