Case Study: Apple, General Motors and Southwest Airlines

Apple, General Motors, and Southwest Airlines are three iconic companies with unique histories, cultures, and business strategies. Apple, founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976, revolutionized the computer industry and became a global leader in design, technology, and innovation. General Motors, established in 1908, is one of the world’s largest automakers, producing iconic brands such as Chevrolet, Cadillac, and Buick. Southwest Airlines, launched in 1971, transformed the airline industry by offering low fares, friendly service, and a fun-loving culture. Each company has faced its own set of challenges and opportunities, and each has been led by influential leaders who have shaped the company’s vision, values, and success.

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Apple, General Motors, and Southwest Airlines are three companies that have achieved immense success in their respective industries. However, their origins and paths to success are quite different. 

Apple was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne, initially producing personal computers and eventually expanding into other electronics such as smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches. Jobs is known for his leadership style that was characterized by his vision, passion, and relentless pursuit of excellence.Steve Jobs was known for being demanding and a perfectionist, but also for inspiring his team to do their best work.

General Motors, on the other hand, is a century-old American automobile manufacturer that was founded in 1908 and played a significant role in shaping the automotive industry as we know it today. Mary Barra is an American businesswoman who is currently the CEO of General Motors (GM), making her the first woman to lead a major global automaker. She started working for GM in 1980 and worked her way up the ranks, holding various positions in engineering, communications, and human resources. In 2014, she was named CEO of GM, where she has focused on modernizing the company and promoting innovation.

Southwest Airlines is a low-cost American airline that was founded in 1967 by Herb Kelleher and Rollin King with the vision of providing an affordable travel option for passengers without compromising on customer service. Herb Kelleher was an American businessman and lawyer initially practiced law but later decided to start an airline with his business partner. KKelleher is known for his unconventional leadership style, which emphasized putting employees first and prioritizing customer service. Under his leadership, Southwest Airlines became one of the most successful airlines in the world.

Despite their differences, all three companies have demonstrated exceptional leadership and management in achieving success in their industries.

Different Personalities

The personalities of the leaders behind Apple, General Motors, and Southwest Airlines also played a role in shaping the company culture and approach. 

Steve Jobs was known for his perfectionism, attention to detail, and demanding leadership style. He was a visionary and had a unique ability to anticipate future trends and develop groundbreaking products that transformed industries. 

Mary Barra is described as collaborative, empathetic, and focused on building a strong team culture. 

Herb Kelleher was known for his charisma, sense of humor, and unconventional leadership style. He prioritized employee satisfaction and created a fun, family-like culture at Southwest Airlines. 

Different Leadership Styles

Autocratic leadership: In the 1980s, Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, was known for his autocratic leadership style. He was known for making decisions without input from his team and for being very demanding. Jobs was able to push his team to produce some of the most innovative and successful products in the technology industry.

Transformational leadership: Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, is known for her transformational leadership style. She has worked to change the culture at GM and to shift the company’s focus to innovation and customer satisfaction. Barra is a role model for many young women in business and is known for her ability to inspire and motivate her team.

Servant leadership: Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, was known for his servant leadership style. Kelleher believed in putting his employees first and in treating them with respect and dignity. This approach helped to create a culture of trust and loyalty at Southwest, which in turn contributed to the company’s success.

Different Organizational Structures

Apple has a functional organizational structure. This means that the company is divided into different departments or functions, such as design, engineering, marketing, and sales. Each department is responsible for a specific aspect of the company’s operations, and employees within each department report to a department head or manager. This structure allows for efficient communication and coordination within each department, but it can also lead to silos and slow decision-making across departments.

GM has a divisional organizational structure. This means that the company is divided into different divisions based on product lines or geographic regions. Each division operates somewhat independently and has its own resources, such as marketing and R&D teams. This structure allows for greater flexibility and responsiveness to customer needs, but it can also lead to duplication of efforts and lack of coordination across divisions.

Southwest Airlines has a functional organizational structure, similar to Apple. The company is divided into different departments, such as operations, marketing, and finance. However, Southwest also places a strong emphasis on its corporate culture and employee engagement, which helps to facilitate communication and collaboration across departments.


In conclusion, Steve Jobs, Mary Barra, and Herb Kelleher were all visionary leaders who left a significant mark on their respective companies and industries. Each of them had a unique leadership style that was suited to the particular challenges and opportunities they faced. Jobs was a charismatic and demanding leader who set high standards for himself and his team, and who was not afraid to take risks and challenge conventional thinking. Barra, on the other hand, is known for her collaborative and inclusive leadership style, which emphasizes teamwork and transparency. Kelleher’s leadership style was also unconventional, as he put employees first and prioritized customer service, which contributed to the success of Southwest Airlines. The organizational structures of Apple, GM, and Southwest Airlines also reflect the distinct cultures and leadership styles of each company, with Apple being highly centralized and focused on innovation, GM being a more traditional hierarchical organization, and Southwest Airlines being a highly decentralized and customer-centric organization. Overall, these three leaders and their companies serve as compelling case studies for students of business and leadership, showcasing the importance of vision, culture, and leadership in driving organizational success.