The Colleen C. Barrett Institute for Cultural Excellence & Customer Service

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Colleen Barrett was the original architect of the Southwest Culture that treated every Employee like Family–a concept admired around the world but rarely replicated. For over 50 years, it has inspired tremendous loyalty from Employees and Customers.

About Colleen

Colleen Barrett was led to the aviation industry by chance. She devoted herself to the cause of Southwest Airlines by choice.

As a legal secretary for San Antonio attorney Herb Kelleher, the eventual Founder of Southwest Airlines, Colleen had an eye for detail, the ability to comprehend and organize an extraordinary amount of information, a relentless focus on effective communication, and a passion for service—all seemingly serendipitous complements to Herb’s strategic and visionary strengths. Their partnership began in 1967 and would soon translate into what many consider the greatest experiment in the history of commercial aviation.

Colleen gave equal priority to the needs of the business and the needs of Employees (and, by extension, Customers)—quite possibly, her most valuable gift to Southwest Airlines. She believed the success of one could not happen at the expense of the other. She fought tirelessly to ensure that all had a place at the proverbial table, whether debating policies, crafting processes, or casting a vision for the future. Colleen and Herb’s passion for the People of Southwest Airlines was the driver not only of Southwest’s one-of-a-kind Culture but also their “do the right thing” approach to serving Customers. Led by “The Golden Rule,” Colleen eschewed formal service policies, believing there rarely is only one “right” solution for every problem. She encouraged Employees to lead with their hearts as much as their heads when helping Customers, even in an industry as highly regulated as commercial passenger aviation.

Colleen led by example. She personally corresponded with Customers, answering complaints, compliments, and an endless array of inquiries. She often sent handwritten notes, gifts, and, on one occasion, extended an invitation for a Customer to be Southwest President for a Day! Being transparent, thorough, honest, and kind are key components of her communication style, and in her tenure at Southwest, it translated into intense Customer loyalty for the airline. She took that same approach, with even greater intensity, in caring for her “Internal Customers”—Southwest Airlines Employees. Colleen drew energy from delivering thousands of heartfelt notes, remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and life events, capitalizing on teaching moments, and never failing to recognize excellent performance or any act of kindness, heroism, or service that impressed her. This passion for Employees led Colleen to create a Team called Internal Customer Care, solely dedicated to these efforts. (Though the name has changed to Coheart Care, the original mission remains the same–to be in service to the now over 75,000 Employees of Southwest Airlines.)

Colleen’s rise at Southwest was quick and merited. Her valuable combination of exceptional administrative skills, an intuition for understanding people, and a heart for service led to her involvement and Leadership in almost every aspect of the business. She was a member of the Southwest Executive Planning Committee, chaired numerous task forces and committees, and led multiple Teams in service to Internal and External Southwest Customers. Colleen also became the first woman president in the airline industry when she assumed the role in 2001.

In the early 1990s, as Southwest was rapidly growing, Colleen had the vision to start the Companywide Culture Committee with the purpose of inspiring Employees to own, strengthen, and promote the Culture. The committee grew from its original 48 members to several hundred Employees serving on local Culture Committees in each city Southwest serves. In 2021, the initiative transitioned to what is now the Culture Ambassador Program. There currently are over 420 Culture Ambassadors voluntarily supporting more than 121 locations within the Southwest system, including 14 international destinations.

Colleen is currently President Emeritus of Southwest. Prior to stepping down as the Company’s President on July 15, 2008, she oversaw the management responsibilities for the following areas/groups:

  • the Senior Vice President Marketing (Marketing, Sales & Distribution; Online Marketing; Revenue Management & Pricing)
  • the Senior Vice President Corporate Communications (Pass Bureau; Emergency Response; Public Relations & Community Affairs; Community Relations & Charitable Giving; Employee Communications; Legislative Awareness)
  • the Senior Vice President Chief People & Administration Officer (People [Human Resources]; Leadership Development & Training; Manager in Training programs; University for People; Performance Reviews; Talent Development; Onboarding Program)
  • the Vice President Customer Relations & Rapid Rewards
  • the Vice President Labor & Employee Relations (Labor & Employment Law; Employee Relations; FMLA/ADA; Labor Relations & Negotiations)
  • the Vice President Reservations; the Director Corporate Security

Colleen also co-authored with Ken Blanchard the book Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Success (2010).

Colleen served as a member of the Board of Directors from 2001 to May 2008 and as Corporate Secretary from March 1978 to May 2008. She served as Vice President Administration from 1986 to 1990, Executive Vice President Customers from 1990 to 2001, President and COO from 2001 to 2004, and President from 2004 to July 2008. Throughout her career she was active in numerous civic and charitable organizations, served on several business advisory boards and commissions and received dozens of awards and accolades.

Colleen has one son and one grandson, as well as friends too numerous to count. Her mark on the unique Culture of Southwest Airlines is indelible, and her influence is eternal. She is forever beloved by the Southwest Family.

  • Texas Aviation Hall of Fame (2024)
  • Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, National Aeronautic Association (2016)
  • Special Recognition Honoree at Dallas High Tea with High Heels (2014)
  • Go-Giver Lifetime Achievement Award (2012)
  • Texas Business Hall of Fame (2011)
  • Honorary Doctor of Humanities, Saint Mary’s College (2011)
  • Honorary Doctor of Business Management, Grand Canyon University (2010)
  • Texas Lutheran University Excellence in Leadership Award (2009)
  • The Transport Workers Union National President Jim Little announced on behalf of local TWU 550, 555, and 556 that, in an unprecedented action, Colleen Barrett was now an honorary lifetime member of the TWU “In grateful appreciation of [her] career of fairness and support for the unionized workers at Southwest Airlines. We love our workplace due to [her] efforts.” (December 2008)
  • William Shea Award (2008)
  • Recognized as one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women by the Dallas Business Journal’s Women in Business (2008)
  • Texas Labor Management Hall of Fame (2008)
  • Tower Award, National Association of Women Business Owners, Cleveland (2008)
  • Dallas YWCA Centennial Award 100 Women, 100 Years (2008)
  • Purple Boot Award, Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Texas (2008)
  • Tony Jannus Award Winner (2007)
  • Junior Achievement’s Dallas Business Hall of Fame (2007)
  • Girls Inc. Honoree (2007)
  • Outstanding Woman in Aviation Award (2007)
  • World’s 100 Most Powerful Women: (2004-2007)
  • Texas CASA’s Lone Star Champions For Kids Award (2005)
  • Horatio Alger Award (2005)
  • Women in Aviation, International Pioneer Hall of Fame (2005)
  • Texas Trailblazer Award (2005)
  • IWF Woman Who Makes A Difference Award (2004)
  • Aiming High Honoree: National Organization of Women (2003)
  • Featured in Texas Women—Trailblazers, Shining Stars & Cowgirls (2003)
  • Distinguished Women’s Award: Northwood University (2003)
  • Women in the Economy-Woman of the Month: NCPA (2003)
  • 50 Most Powerful Women in Business: Fortune (2003, 2002)
  • 100 Most Influential Women in Aviation: Women in Aviation International (WAI) (2003)
  • Woman of Distinction Award: Birmingham-Southern College GALA XVI (2003)
  • Top 50 Leaders: Fast Company Magazine (2003)
  • Business People of the Year: Dallas Business Journal (2002)
  • Best Managers: BusinessWeek (2002)
  • Women’s Leadership Exchange Compass Award (2002)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award: Virginia Aviation Award (2002)
  • eComm Ten Awards: Business Wire, Inc. (2002)
  • Louise Raggio Pathfinder Award: National Association of Women Business Owners (2002)
  • Kupfer Distinguished Executive Award (2002)
  • People to Watch: Fortune Magazine (2002)
  • Staples Store Dedication in Claremont, NH (2002) 
  • America’s Most Powerful Business Women: Fortune Magazine (2001)
  • Texas Business Woman of the Year: Texas Women’s Chamber of Commerce (2001)
  • Mentor of the Month: Women’s Enterprise (2000)
  • The Most Powerful Women in Travel: Travel Agent Magazine (several years)
  • Board of Directors of the Foundation for Women’s Resources
  • Board of Directors of the Dallas Hearing Foundation
  • Charity Leadership Council, Catholic Charities of Dallas
  • The Ken Blanchard College of Business-Advisory Board
  • Board of Trustees Becker College
  • Board of Directors of JCPenney Company, Inc.
  • Board of Directors of the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Dallas, Inc.
  • Member, The Dallas Forum
  • Member, International Women’s Forum
  • Southwest Airlines Co. — President Emeritus, July 2008-present
  • Southwest Airlines Co. — President, 2004-July 2008
  • Southwest Airlines Co. — President & COO, 2001-2004
  • Southwest Airlines Co. — Board of Directors, 2001-2008 
  • Southwest Airlines Co. — Executive Vice President-Customers, 1990-2001
  • Southwest Airlines Co. — Vice President-Administration, 1986-1990
  • Southwest Airlines Co. — Corporate Secretary, 1978-2008

Colleen Through the Years


Colleen is born in Bellows Falls, VT.

colleen 1964 “If anybody would have told me, you know, 60 years ago, that I would have had anything to do with an airline or that I would have been part of an incredibly renowned company–for its success and its contributions to society–I would have said, that couldn’t be. It couldn’t happen. It really is like the American dream come true.”


Colleen graduates with highest honors from Becker Junior College, Worcester, MA.

colleen 1964 “I don’t have a four year college education. I have a two year associate degree, but I probably have learned my most valuable lessons from watching others … and you can learn both the good and the bad.”


Colleen becomes the Executive Assistant to Herb Kelleher at his law firm.

colleen 1964 “They didn’t know how we [Herb and Colleen] could have worked together that long because we are absolute opposites. But I think perhaps that’s what makes the world go around, and I say that to say I think one of the things Southwest has done the best is to celebrate diversity in every sense of the word.”


Colleen takes a leave of absence from the law firm in order to start a new role at Southwest Airlines as Corporate Secretary.

colleen 1964 “If I could give one piece of advice to young people in terms of work, I would suggest that they never take a job for a title or for pay.”


Colleen’s level of authority at the airline quickly grew and in 1986, she was named the Vice President of Administration.

colleen 1964 “I think one of the most appealing freedoms that we give to our People is the freedom to be themselves and to almost create their own destiny.”


Colleen was promoted to Executive Vice President Customers.

colleen 1964 “Our approach to Customer Service was going to be the same internally as it was externally, and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful in terms of getting people to really understand the mission of Southwest Airlines.”


Colleen launched the first Companywide Culture Committee, which grew from its original 48 members to several hundred Employees serving on local committees in each city. The initiative has since evolved into the Culture Ambassador Program with over 420 members serving over 121 locations and 14 international destinations.

colleen 1964 “I think it is very rare that anyone in a management position at Southwest isn’t constantly thinking about, working at, or leading by example part of the Culture that we’ve tried to build. And I know everyone uses that now, but we had a Culture before anybody even knew what it was. It wasn’t a planned thing, it evolved.”


Colleen became the first woman to hold the office of President at a major airline when she was named President and Chief Operating Officer.

colleen 1964 Herb Kelleher on why he chose Colleen to succeed him as President: “Because she knows how to love People to success.”


Colleen’s leadership during the wake of the September 11 attacks was notable. She decided to immediately pull Southwest’s light-hearted television advertisements and replace them with patriotic-themed ads in which she personally delivered a heartfelt message from Southwest to reassure the traveling public. Southwest was the only major airline to be profitable in the fourth quarter of that year and did not lay off any Employees in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

colleen 1964 “I think the one thing we should let go of is the sentence that it’s not the same old Southwest. It’s the Southwest we make it.”


Under Colleen’s direction, Southwest played a crucial role in repealing the Wright Amendment, which had legally restricted interstate air travel from Dallas Love Field for almost 30 years. This victory paved the way for the airline to expand its routes 400% by 2008.

colleen 1964 Interviewer: “When historians look back at Southwest, what do you think the legacy of Southwest will be?” Colleen: “That we’ve been a maverick, and a successful one. I guess both are important points.”

Colleen is born in Bellows Falls, VT.

"If anybody would have told me, you know, 60 years ago, that I would have had anything to do with an airline or that I would have been part of an incredibly renowned company–for its success and its contributions to society–I would have said, that couldn't be. It couldn't happen. It really is like the American dream come true."
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