Jim Parker on Life and Leadership


Jim Parker was CEO of Southwest Airlines during and after September 11th. Some of Jim’s accomplishments during this time…..

  • Only airline not to furlough employees after 9/11
  • Only airline not to borrow money from the US Government’s guaranteed loan program
  • Only airline to not cut employee salaries after 9/11
  • Only airline to offer unconditional “no questions asked refunds” after 9/11
  • Ultimately led Southwest to a market capitalization greater than the sum of the other airlines combined.

During Parker’s tenure as CEO, Southwest Airlines was named one of America’s three most admired companies, one of America’s 100 best corporate citizens, one of the world’s most socially responsible companies, and worldwide airline of the year.


Jim told Leadership Freak he stumbled into business at the invitation of Herb Kelleher, the co-founder of Southwest Airlines. It was a trip that landed him in the CEO’s chair in June of 2001, just three months before 9/11.

Leadership Freak (LF): What did you learn about business while at Southwest (SW)?

Jim Parker (JP): Just how important people are. Remember, I went to SW in 1979. Back then, for most companies, people were a depreciable asset. They could be used up and disposed of. Business leaders weren’t talking about corporate culture and saying things like, “employees are our most valuable asset.” Even today, for some, these are just politically correct words that aren’t put into practice. SW embraced those ideas long before they became popular.

“I have a growing appreciation for how important people are to the success of any company.”

LF: What was it like leading through the crisis of 9/11?

JP: I can tell you it felt like I didn’t smile for two years. (He chuckled while he continued) And I enjoy smiling. Like the rest of the country, I was resolved to overcome.

LF: What helped you succeed?

JP: Success isn’t about being a hero. It’s about going to work every day, loving your job, loving your company, loving your fellow employees, and loving your customers. Do that and you will have strength to survive in bad times.

Our success is a case study in the “round world theory.” What goes around comes around. Just keep doing the right thing and it comes back to you. Employees that love their jobs and love their company create customers that love your company. Employees that hate the boss and hate the company create customers that hate the company.

LF: What’s the most frequent advice you give leaders?

JP: The advice I most frequently give is:

  • Be yourself
  • Follow your passion
  • Don’t set artificial goals for yourself. Don’t set goals about the job you want or the amount of money you want to make.
  • Whoever said success is about the journey and not the destination was right.

I asked Jim what he was doing these days and he replied, “I’m working hard not to work.” He continues to speak at events and for major educational institutions.  He’s also on the board of a couple large corporations.


How can leaders and organizations express the value proposition that people are their most valuable asset?


Jim’s book: Do the Right Thing: How Dedicated Employees Create Loyal Customers and Large Profits.