7 tips on being a great leader from Qantas’ Alan Joyce

I saw Alan Joyce chat with John Bertrand as part of the Monash University Leadership series. Before the chat I was looking forward to learning how he had the cojones to take on three unions, shut down a global airline, and earn the scorn of politicians and media in the aftermath. I was expecting a hard arse. 

What I got was an engaging, likable, and empathetic manager with a relatively sophisticated view of modern workplaces, the importance of culture, and a refreshing view of who the stakeholders are in a modern business (tip: it’s never just the shareholders).

Here are seven tips on being a strong leader from Alan Joyce:

Have a vision 

Seems obvious but teams need a vision. According to Joyce the essence of leadership is about having a vision, a strategy, and a direction, with the right team to support it. 

Create a diverse team

A good management team is broad in terms of background, views, education, and skills. Joyce believes that unless a management team is diverse the focus will be narrow and big ideas may be stifled. He pointed out that the Qantas leadership team is very diverse with three business leads being women. 

Ask questions and empower
Joyce believes in asking questions rather than a command and conquer leadership style. He spoke about how former CEO and Chairman James Strong was an inspiring leader who encouraged people to think for themselves by asking questions. Joyce believes that this style encourages open and frank discussions which can lead to better decisions. 

Take calculated risks

Like any CEO, Joyce likes people who get things done. One thing he highlighted was that while he encourages entrepreneurial behaviour in his team, all risks must be calculated. He encourages his team to do the work documenting risks and mitigation actions. Apparently Jetstar was a calculated risk that was documented in a 90 page business plan written in two months.

Own up to mistakes and clean up fast

If you take calculated risks then you will make mistakes. Joyce accepts this, going as far as having an 80/20 rule for wins/losses. He stressed that for this to work mistakes need to owned up to and cleaned up quickly. Jetstar’s failed free seating policy was something Joyce championed having seen similar practices work at low cost carriers like Ryan Air and Easy Jet. He quickly realised that the policy was unpopular and fixed it within 6 months, even though his name was associated with the policy and he had to admit he was wrong. The message here is tha strong leaders are flexible and transparent. 

In a crisis focus on what you don’t know

During the crisis when Joyce grounded the entire Qantas fleet, Joyce asked a lot of questions and made sure he found out what people knew and what they didn’t know. Apparently Qantas assessed three alternatives to handle the dispute which was costing them $20MM per week and came to the conclusion that they needed to take their own industrial action to remove what they believed were old fashioned work practices.  Gutsy move whether you agree with him or not.

Don’t bully or thump desks 

Joyce believes strong leaders are collaborative, honest, and open. They don’t bully and don’t thump desks which kind of makes sense. 

The impressive thing about Joyce is that he is entirely self-made. Whether or not his public persona matches his private persona, the guy came from a part of Dublin with parents who didn’t complete secondary school. He is now a leader of a global Australian business. That takes smarts and hard work. 

What do you think?