Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Flying  is marvellous . . . I love it. 

That moment of sheer delight as you fly over Sydney Harbour or walk into the airline lounge with the anticipation of the flight ahead. 

flying - wonder

It means a lot to me and that's why Qantas means a lot to me too, as this column for the Canberra Times points out . . . 


There can really be no doubt why Qantas has entered a tail spin/ can’t take off/ hasn’t reached the end of the runway/ enter your favourite flying analogy here. It all boils down to a very simple issue – leadership. It almost appears as if the ongoing commercial failure of our national carrier is intended to be the classic, textbook example of how Australia lost its way in the early years of the 21st Century. Because the airline offers lessons that have much wider, national applications. Lets examine these in turn.

First up, it’s important to note that Qantas’ problems have nothing to do with the fact that CEO Alan Joyce is either Irish, or a leprechaun. Indeed, the name Joyce itself is actually highly distinguished; normally borne by people of great discernment and wisdom (and yes, it is true that James Joyce is, in fact, a wonderful editor of the Canberra Times, now finally he’s given up writing incomprehensible novels).

Now analysts might suggest the fact Joyce looks intently and directly into your eyes without blinking suggests he’s lying, but I think not. (Did you see the earnest sincerity with which he engaged the camera in his 7.30 interview with Chris Ulhman the other day?) This is to misunderstand the man, because it’s actually far worse than this. He doesn’t actually have a clue what’s true and what’s not. He may indeed be spinning a different story every day – but he does so with the sort of earnestness that just can’t be faked. Joyce believes his own yarns and this is Qantas’ biggest problem.

The Blarney stone’s perched atop the battlements of a castle in the south of Ireland. Anyone who kisses it supposedly has the ability to weave dubious facts into an eloquent, plausible explanation of reality. I have no idea if Joyce has ever preformed this ritual, nevertheless I shouldn’t be at all surprised if he had. He certainly seems to have the ability to convince their listeners of his preferred interpretation of events – no matter how far at odds with reality it happens to be.

Do you remember a couple of years ago, when the great answer was going to be the development of a ‘premium airline’ to service the Asian market? A non-starter if ever there was one, as any quick analysis of the myriad of problems (landing rights, frequency, cost) would have shown. Yet he wasted enormous time and energy before abandoning his cherished project. Then, suddenly, the key to success was all about retaining 65 percent of the market – even at the cost of $8.75 million each and every day and damn profitability. This from a bloke whose only successful airline management experience comes from running low-cost Jetstar under close and constant supervision almost a decade ago.

Joyce’s problem is simple. He gets very excited each time he sees a new big idea, because every time it seems to offer the solution. He becomes convinced he – and only he – can see the way forward. He becomes convinced this new plan will work. It will, he’s sure! And what executive who wants to get ahead is ever going to tell their boss otherwise? Or put forward minor complications (like ‘it’s a stupid idea’) when Joyce believes he’s finally found a path to the Promised Land? Nobody.

His supine Chairman, Lee Clifford, doesn’t have a clue either. Management theory suggests organisational processes are the key to success. Theoretically, Clifford’s time as CEO of Rio Tinto should, therefore, have equipped him with the skills to run an airline. Unfortunately, it’s rubbish. Each business is different. It’s like suggesting a retailer can run a media group. Clifford and Joyce both took up their positions in 2008. Nearly six years on it’s obvious they’re stumbling blindly in the dark. It’s like watching two drunks attempting to open a door. One stands spellbound as the other continues finding new, shiny baubles and continues thrusting them into the lock. It’s never going to open, but they’re too intent on the task to listen to advice.

The symbolism of their little failure has wider dimensions. Qantas shareholders are effectively disenfranchised. What sort of disaster would be necessary to change the management and board? And what relief would such a change bring, anyway? The problem is the framework.

Joyce and Clifford will continue extorting money from Qantas because they’re doing their jobs. The mere fact that they’re unable to find a solution doesn’t seem to overly concern either man. Instead they bumble forward trying other bizarre schemes in a desperate attempt to turn the problem around.

Yet no matter how imaginative these ideas happen to be, management theory is utterly correct about one thing. Bad leaders won’t be able to turn even the best idea into a success. And this is where the column turns from the specific to the general; from Qantas to Australia.

There are, on both sides of politics, a number of really good, imaginative and capable people. I feel far happier, for example, knowing Malcolm Turnbull’s in charge of the NBN than I ever could with Stephen Conroy being in charge of anything (let alone defence). Joe Hockey, however, is a disaster as Treasurer: give me Chris Bowen any day. I’m still out on who I want for PM (although I know the majority of readers have well and truly made up their minds they don’t want the current incumbent).

Yet the problem isn’t that incompetents are running the show. That’s always occurred. What’s different now is that the rewards at the top are so great that nobody further down the line is prepared to risk inserting a little dose of reality for fear it will stymie their career. Stupidity’s allowed to flourish.

1 comment:

  1. Irish are very good at dancing, singing songs, telling stories at the pub etc etc. but running an airline ?