LONDON – Earlier this month, we had the loss of Southwest Airlines’ Co-Founder and ex-CEO Herb Kelleher.
It seems that tragedy has struck for the second time in the space of a month with the passing of previous CEO James “Jim” Parker.
According to Southwest, Parker had died unexpectedly on Jan 26 after dinner “with very good friends”.
Current CEO and Chairman Gary Kelly gave his farewell to Parker, labelling him as someone who “valiantly led Southwest through one of the industry’s most trying times in the wake of the tragic 9/11 attacks.”
“Under Jim’s Leadership, Southwest successfully navigated through this dark time, preserving the job security of our People while remaining profitable under the most unlikely of odds. We will by flying the Southwest flag at half-staff this week to honor Jim”, he continued.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to Jim’s wife, Pat, and the entire Parker family. Jim was a beloved member of our Southwest Family, and we will miss him dearly.”
Parker began his career at Southwest in February 1986 having a successful career as a lawyer in San Antonio and former state assistant attorney general.
He became general counsel for the airline until 2001, where he was named as the new CEO to replace the late Herb Kelleher.
He steered the airline through a shaky time for the airline, where a post-9/11 aviation industry was making things very difficult for carriers to remain profitable.
However, through Parker’s leadership and direction, he was able to capitalise on consumer confidence in aviation and bring the airline to a continued steady profit.
Through his direction, he was able to prevent any layoffs in the airline, which other carriers ended up doing but his tenure also featured rising tension with the flight attendants union.
Better pay and working conditions meant that Parker also had to negotiate this tight ship.
In 2004, he unexpectedly left the company, in where Gary Kelly became the CEO that we see today.
Like with Kelleher, Parker promoted a certain approach to leadership. As he mentioned to his fellow Southwest employees, leadership is about many things.
“Defining and communicating the mission; providing guidance as to how it might be accomplished; equipping people with the proper tools (information, training, etc.); motivating and inspiring through selfless dedication and respect for others; providing both positive and negative feedback, including recognition for achievement; and, ultimately, getting out of the way and giving people the ability and authority to accomplish the mission, with the full confidence they will be supported.”
This approach ultimately acquired him recognition in the likes of Fortune Magazine as one of the People To Watch in 2002 as well as in Fast Company Magazine as one of the Best of the Best in the same year.
Without Parker, the legacy that Kelleher left behind as CEO would not have been able to have continued. Other potential leader figures may not have been able to do what Parker did in a post-9/11 world.
Even if Kelleher was still able to give guidance as a board member, he wasn’t able to implement it as much in practice as Parker did.
This is why Parker’s passing is even more significant, because it formed the relationship between two aviation pioneers who still continued to thrive, even if the odds were stacked against them.
What we see in the industry nowadays is something completely different to that. We do not see many carriers lasting this long and through the many different environments it has been subjected to unless it is a strong brand.
To conclude, Parker will be sorely missed by those in the airline, even if he hadn’t been that well-heard off. As a valiant leader, he leaves a legacy behind, which was the continuation and survival of the Kelleher-inspired brand.