Southwest's Linda Rutherford on Airline Industry Leadership

December 1, 2017

As the senior vice president and CCO at Southwest Airlines, Linda Rutherford oversees her company’s media relations, strategic public relations, emergency response and employee engagement. She spoke with Tactics about being a playful leader and how the airline industry can overcome its recent failures.

What are the three tenets of leadership that have proven most effective for you?

I believe effective leadership is a composite of many intentional qualities, but if I had to narrow it down to three I would say intellectual curiosity, being a good listener and showing leadership courage.

How does working for a brand that’s about fun inform your leadership style?

The Southwest brand does have a distinct personality. Fun is just one part of that; it’s equal parts heritage, fun, family and teamwork. We encourage our employees to have fun at work, and that often [involves] making the travel experience fun for our customers.

It’s about taking your job seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously. That spirit allows me to be more playful in my leadership style, inject humor into our daily work and be more vulnerable. I love it when someone compliments me on being real.

What’s the biggest leadership outage we face in the PR profession today?

We’ve spent a great deal of time broadening the definition of what public relations means. We’ve spent a great deal of time getting a seat at the table, justifying our worth. It’s all been necessary, perhaps, but it is time to look up and horizon scan. It’s not all about us; we need to adopt systems thinking and understand how we exist in the greater business ecosystem.

What would you tell PR pros who want to make the leap to leadership?

I would counsel anyone looking to move to leadership to do three things. First, you should understand how your business works because it’s about leadership first, functional expertise second. Then, you should find out what other leaders need and how you can help fill the gap. Lastly, you should know your leadership style — the good, the bad and how you might need to adapt. Agility is a valuable quality in a leader.

Recently, the airline industry has experienced some mishaps that went viral. How does Southwest avoid these situations?

In all fairness, we have not avoided them. We welcome nearly 125 million people a year on our planes. We have had incidents where travel did not go as planned and we’ve been the subject of a viral video shared on social media. We know we cannot avoid those situations.

Where we try to differentiate ourselves is in how our people work with customers when those situations do come up. We also invest heavily in our preparedness to be able to respond swiftly and compassionately when these events do happen.

How have you advised Southwest’s employees on keeping their cool when a situation is occurring? 

As part of our communications efforts, we offer media training so our field leaders feel confident in responding when local media arrive. As part of our social business efforts, we offer training to our employees to help them understand that with today’s user-generated content all over the internet, they are always “on.”

We work hard to help our employees understand our first mission is to gather the facts and mitigate the public conversation, and the second mission is to learn from the incident and make any necessary changes to our training or policies.

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website ( and contact him by email ( or Twitter (@KensViews).


Keli C. Jacobi, APR says:

LOVE this (almost as much as I LOVE SW Airlines)---intellectual curiosity, being a good listener and showing leadership courage. Thanks for the great questions and answers.

Dec. 12, 2017

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