Colleen Barrett was born in 1944 in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Her father, a U.S. Navy veteran, worked in a machine shop and was later a postal worker. But he was also an alcoholic, and as his drinking problem worsened over the years, he could not keep a steady job. Her mother was a keypunch operator for a tool and die company. "My mother was our stronghold," says Barrett. "She worked hard all her life, and I helped by taking care of my two younger brothers."
The family lived in a rented home until Barrett was 12. At that time, her parents built a modest home with three bedrooms, but the following year it burned to the ground. While the house was being rebuilt, the family lived with relatives. Even though there was never enough money, Barrett remembers her mother's generosity to others. There was always room for an extra plate at the dinner table, no matter how lean finances were at the time. But her father's alcoholism often caused him to be mentally abusive, and Barrett gradually took refuge in the Catholic school that she attended until eighth grade.
A self-described "good little Irish Catholic girl," Barrett was studious and an overachiever. She had to work hard for her good grades, but she was more than willing to put in the effort. As a junior, Barrett began doing clerical work for a paper company after school and on Saturdays. She also worked for attorneys in the summer. She enjoyed her law work and as a senior in high school took business classes to help her become a legal secretary.
Barrett attended Becker Junior College in Worchester, Massachusetts, on a government loan and with the help of a few small scholarships. She completed the two-year program with highest honors and married her boyfriend. Soon after their marriage, Barrett's husband was drafted; he joined the U.S. Air Force and was sent overseas. Barrett, who was then pregnant, went home to Bellows Falls to be near her mother, and she lived in a one-room, third-floor, walk-up apartment. This was a difficult time for Barrett, who worked throughout her pregnancy and lived on only $75 a month. When her husband returned, their baby, Patrick, was four months old. The young family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where Barrett's husband was stationed.
It was clear from the beginning that Barrett would have to work to supplement the family income. In 1968, she became a legal secretary for Herb Kelleher, an attorney who formed his own firm two years later and took Barrett with him. Kelleher became Barrett's mentor and coach. She learned quickly and was steadily given more responsibility.
Barrett accompanied Kelleher to most meetings and became deeply involved in his casework, particularly with one of his clients, Southwest Airlines, which Kelleher had co-founded in 1967, and which was prevented from flying its first flight for three and a half years because of lawsuits and administrative hearings pursued by the airline's rivals.
By 1973, Barrett had a life decision to make. She and her husband divorced, and her father had committed suicide. Barrett knew her mother wanted her to come back to New England, but San Antonio fit Barrett perfectly as a place to live. Barrett could not drive because she is unable determine distance or depth as a result of a severe depth perception and peripheral vision problem that could not be corrected. San Antonio had a good public transportation system, but in Vermont she would have had to be be dependent on living close enough to her job to walk. In the end, she decided to stay put and continue her work with Kelleher.
In 1978, Barrett became corporate secretary to Southwest's board of director. She was named president and COO in 2001, and she served as president and corporate secretary until 2008. Barrett has been recognized on several occasions for her business and leadership achievements, and has received the Texas Business Hall of Fame (2011) and the Go-Giver Lifetime Achievement Award (2012). From 2004 to 2007, she was on the Forbes list of world's most powerful women. In 2010, Barrett co-authored, with Ken Blanchard, the book titled Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Success.
Barrett then became president emeritus at Southwest and says she never encountered a glass ceiling during her rise through the ranks of Southwest's administration. Southwest became one of the nation's largest airlines. It has repeatedly won the "triple crown" for best on-time performance, best baggage handling, and fewest customer complaints among all major carriers.
Barrett laughingly says that she knew she had reached certain success the first time she didn't have to buy a dress on layaway. But, she adds, success is definitely not a paycheck or a title. "For me, success is being able to answer '˜yes' to the question: Did I make a positive difference today? I know I'm successful when I can give back to someone. My mother never had anything, but she always shared. That is a lesson I learned that has served me well."