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How can an airline survive a government order to ground its entire fleet and shut down for days? After 9/11, all U.S. airlines were faced with this same crisis. One that succeeded through the difficulty was Southwest Airlines, already known for its outstanding customer service. Southwest’s passengers, flight attendants, pilots and ground crews were stranded all across the country after the terrorist attacks. But unlike their competition, Southwest’s leadership did more than just sit and wait. They encouraged employees to leverage their trademark fun approach to business and to help stranded customers enjoy themselves at the movies or the local bowling alley. And when the ramifications of the shutdown forced other airlines to cut staff, Southwest’s then-CEO, James Parker, announced just three days after 9/11 that the company would be keeping all of its employees, as well as issuing a profit-sharing payment.

Leadership characteristics like crisis management, creative problem solving and a strong belief in the company’s vision saw Southwest through this unimaginable situation. The CEO also protected his staff, which ultimately led to a stronger airline.

Southwest CEO James Parker believed that because Southwest had built their company on sound business principles for the past 30 years, they were able to handle crisis better than other airlines.

James Parker demonstrates many aspects of the contingency model in his leadership style. The first and foremost important factor is that there is a situational influence that determines the leadership methods that are to be implemented. Mr. Parker has Good leader-member relations, is influenced by a degree of task structure and definitely displays tremendous amounts of power in his leadership.

These three factors characterize the type of leadership that should follow the situation at hand. And, due to the given scenario, Parker remains extremely customer and employee focused and demonstrates this focus by implementing programs in favor of the employees and customers.

Ultimately, the company may be less profitable in the short-term, but due to the significant impact Parker’s leadership style has on the company and followers, Southwest Airlines has adopted an infinitely important reputation of customer and employee focus.

Is the contingency theory well represented in this example? What other theories can you justify for Parker and Southwest Airlines? 

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