British Airways Leadership Style

Keywords: willie walsh leadership style, ba management style

Examining Leadership style in British Airways


This is a study which examine the leadership in British airways and also evaluates their leader i.e. Willie Walsh using the relevant theories on leadership. Also critically evaluate the leadership style that is required for the success of British Airways. Reflections on leadership styles used in our previous jobs are also provided below.



Leadership has and will always be an important factor in human affairs. In today’s time it has become essential for organisations to have a good leader for its success at the same time its becoming challenging to find the right type of leader for the job as mentioned in (Kotler, 1988)

“Leadership is an activity, that of influencing the behaviour and beliefs and feelings of other group members in an intended direction” as mentioned in (wright & taylor, 1984).

Leadership is only a part of the manager’s job not the whole thing.

According to (Posner & Kouzes, 2002, p. 13)

5 common practices of all leaders

  1. Model the way
  2. Inspire a shared vision
  3. Challenge the process
  4. Enable others to act
  5. Encourage the heart


British Airways Plc is the UK’s biggest international scheduled airlines. They not only have scheduled services but also operation of international and domestic carriage of freight and mail, and ancillary services. British Airways fly to more than 300 destinations. It was established in 1910 it was formed to preserve the records and artefacts of British Airways predecessor companies BOAC, BEA, BSAA and the pre-war Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd. BA was the first to launch the world’s first daily international scheduled air service between London and Paris. It was a public sector company which in 1981 LordKing was appointed Chairman he was then charged by the SecretaryofStateforTrade to take all necessary steps for privatisation.


British airway has been known to have problem with it’s employees, being punctual , and financial losses from a very long time it had major problems in the beginning of 1980 which


He was born on 25th of October1961 in Dublin, Ireland. In 1979, he joined Aer Lingus as a cadet. During his years as a pilot he was a chief negotiator for the union of pilots. He acquired a Master’s degree in management and business administration from Trinity College, Dublin and later became a CEO of Futura in 1998 before he became a CEO of Aer Lingus 2000. Here he turned a loss making organisation into a profit making organisation within 6 months by reducing cost and selling painting and art from their office and also by cutting jobs. In 2005 he resigned from his position as the government refused to privatise the air lines.

compiled from the various annual reports of the Aer Lingus

Currently he is the CEO of British Airways. In May 2005 Willie Walsh became a Chief Executive Designate, after Rod Eddington as Chief Executive on 1 October 2005. He was hired as British Airways were wanting to reduce cost and make themselves into a low cost airlines.

From the annual reports of the British Airways


  • Trait Theory
  • Michigan and Ohio University Studies
  • Transactional, Transformation and Charismatic Leadership
  • Situational Leadership Theory


Globalization has made companies compete not only in the domestic but also in the global markets, and the demand for an effective leadership has become highly important. Many studies exist on the subject of leadership; this is mainly due to the fact that leaders are responsible for the main essential task in an organization such as creating, sharing and exploiting organizational knowledge, enabling an organization to grow (Bryant, 2003).

There is no specific formula for being a good leader many scholars over the years have debated over the fact what makes a good leader. Earlier scholars believe that leaders were born and the skills to be a good leader cannot be achieved over the years one such theory is The Great Mans Theory other earlier theories such as Trait theory studies the various traits of a good leader and states that only people having such traits can be good leaders. Even this theory believes in leader are by birth. However the more recent theories look at the behaviour and not the traits and personality. Kouzes and Posner state that Leadership is an identifiable set of skills which are available in all men and women not just in a few charismatic and gifted people (Posner & Kouzes, 2002)

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The following theories are used by me to analyse the leadership style of Willie Walsh in context to British Airways

Trait Theory By Stogdil (Stogdil, 1974)

There are various theories on traits of leaders they all have a few common qualities that are required by a good leader.

This theory believes that leaders are born and the skills and traits of a good leader cannot be acquired over a period of time.

Stogdil in 1974 identified and suggested the following traits and skills as critical and existent in all leaders



  • Adaptability to situations
  • Alert to social environment
  • Ambitious and achievement orientated
  • Assertive
  • Cooperative
  • Decisive
  • Dependable
  • Dominant i.e. having a desire to influence others
  • Energetic
  • Persistent
  • Self-confident
  • Tolerant to stress
  • Willing to assume responsibility
  • Clever
  • Conceptually skilled
  • Creative
  • Diplomatic and tactful
  • Fluent in speaking
  • Knowledgeable about group task
  • Organised (administrative ability)
  • Persuasive
  • Socially skilled

Michigan & Ohio Studies

Michigan University had conducted various studies on leadership in the year 1950. There research showed that leaders could be broadly divided into three categories depending on their characteristics.

  • Task oriented behaviour- Leaders would concentrate on task and not on building a relationship with their subordinates. They did not do the same tasks as their subordinates they concentrated more on activities like scheduling planning coordinating and providing the resources for their subordinates to perform their tasks.
  • Relationship oriented behaviour- These leaders not only focused on task oriented but also gave importance to building up relations with their subordinates helping them not only in their careers but also in their personal lives thus forming a bond with their subordinates more than close control. They believe in rewarding their subordinate with both Intrinsic as well as extrinsic ways. They basically provided the goal and left it onto their subordinates to decide the path they wanted to take.
  • Participative leadership- These leaders include their subordinates as team members in their decision making process at the same time their decision is final independent whether it matches with the decision of the subordinates. These leaders are nature good team leaders. Such leaders are more facilitative than directive while solving problems. These leaders are more effective for teams rather than individuals.

Transactional, Transformation and Charismatic leadership

  • Transactional leaders believe that people can be motivated either by reward or punishment. They create clear structures as to the requirement of what is expected from the subordinates and what would get them rewards or punishments. the subordinate is fully responsible for the work given to him no matter what ever the circumstance that caused the failure. According to Bass a transactional leader comprised of contingent reward (CRW), active management by exception (MBEA), and passive management by exception (MBEP). (Bass M. B., 1985)
  • Transformational leaders are leaders have a vision of transformation that excites and converts potential followers. These leaders may or may not be aware of the way that leads to fulfilment of the vision. Such a leader comprises of idealized influence (II), individualized consideration (IC), intellectual stimulation (IS), and inspirational motivation (IM). (Bass M. B., 1985).
  • Charismatic leadership are leaders who attract followers using their personality, charm rather than using any form of external power or authority. These leaders while interacting with a person make the person feel extremely important. They spend a lot of time learning their environment
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Bass mentions that a transformational leader also will emphasize on higher motive development, and arouse followers’ motivation by means of creating and representing an inspiring vision of the future (Bass B. M., 1997)

Situational Leadership Theory-

The main school of thought of this theory is that there is no one way of leadership style. It states that a leader who uses different leadership styles dependant on the situation he is in (Hersey & Blanchard, 1988). This theory has been proposed by Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey. This model allows you to analyse the various needs of the situation a leader may find himself in and suggest the most appropriate leadership style for the situation.

source (Hersey & Blanchard, 1988)

As seen above this theory divides leadership styles into the following categories

  • Directing (S1)- This leaders is a high directive and a low supportive behaviour orientated
  • Coaching (S2)- This leader is high Directive as well as high Supportive behaviour oriented
  • Supporting (S3)- This leader is a high Supportive and low Directive behaviour orientated
  • Delegating (S4)- This leader is low Supportive as well as low Directive behaviour orientated

(Huczynsky & Buchanan, 2007)

For this model to be successful it is extremely important that the leader should accurately judge the confidence and motivation of his followers.

From all the above theories we see that there is no one best way to predict a successful leader. All the above theories have different ways of looking at leaders. The best way to examine whether a person is a good leader or not is to study him is comparing him to various theories on leadership.


The main reason for British Airways to select Willie Walsh as their CEO was because at that time British Airways was facing stiff competition from low cost airlines. His success as a leader in Aer Lingus an Irish flight carrier which was almost on its way to bankruptcy and then Willie Walsh stepped in not only turning the carrier into a profit making carrier but also one of the most successful carrier of Ireland.

During the analysis I found Willie Walsh to have the following characteristic from the various articles written on him.

  • Intimidating- as his peers were afraid to raise question about T5 at Heathrow before it was inaugurated.
  • Peers are not involved in decisions- He was found to seclude himself and his colleagues found it difficult to approach him (Michaels, 2006).
  • He is very strong minded and confident – He does what he believes to be correct with or without any fan following (Walsh, 2009)
  • Hugely energetic, Hard worker and a workaholic – he has not taken a vacation for the past 3 years (Walsh, 2009)
  • His work is only professional no emotions- This is the main reason as to his success at turning flight carriers profitable as he does this by cutting cost by job cuts.
  • Tuff leader who rules with an iron fist- his peers at Aerlingus use to call him “Slasher Walsh”.
  • Confrontational- He is always involved in the meeting with the union and management. Now he sits on the managements side but earlier he use to sit on the unions side.
  • He is ruthless in his decision- He fired 2 of the oldest managers of British Airways over the terminal 5 fiasco (Milmo, 2008).
  • He believes in leading by being a role model- He and Keith Williams, finance director of BA worked unpaid and requested the staff also to consider unpaid leave or working part time (Travel Weekly(UK), 2009)
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Linking Willie Walsh’s leadership style to Trait Theory

From the above table we observe that Willie Walsh has most of the traits and skills that are required by a successful leader

Linking Willie Walsh’s leadership style to Michigan and Ohio University studies

Michigan Ohio University studies classify Willie Walsh as a leader with Task oriented behaviour. This is seen as he does not maintain any relationship he is only is interested in work if he feels someone is redundant or not doing his work efficiently he fires them. (Nexis,UK, 2005). He also expects his employees to get the work given to them whether or not they have the resources and capability to do the work given to them.

Linking Willie Walsh’s leadership style to Transactional, Transformation and Charismatic Leadership

Willie Walsh follows a transactional style of leadership. As he is task oriented and does not believe in building relations. He believes that the salary given to employee is a reward for their work and in case they don’t do their work properly they should be punished. Thus motivation for doing the job is either reward or to avoid punishment. He is not supportive to them in their work or personal lives as a transformational leader would be nor does he have the qualities of a charismatic leader as people do not follow him by choice but by compulsion. He also does not take out time to know his subordinates and what would motivate them.

Linking Willie Walsh’s leadership style to situational leadership

Willie Walsh can be placed in the S1 quadrant as he has a high directive and a low supportive oriented behaviour. However the theory states that a leader should be flexible and should change his style from time to time depending on the situation however the data collected on Willie Walsh does not show any signs of flexibility and he follows the same leadership style. Thus we can say that according to this theory Willie Walsh is not a good leader.

  • Evaluation
  • Reflection
  • Critical
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography


Airways, b. (n.d.). Retrieved 11 22, 2009, from

Bass, B. M. (1997). Does the transactional-transformational leadership paradigm transcend organizational and national boundaries? American Psychologist , 52, 130-139.

Bass, M. B. (1985). Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations, . New York: Free Press.

Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1988). Management of Organisational Behaviour: Utilising Human Resources. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Huczynsky, A. A., & Buchanan, D. A. (2007). Organisational Behaviour (6 ed.). Pioltello: Rotolito Lombanda SPA.

Kotler, J. P. (1988). The Leadership Factor. Free press .

Michaels, D. (2006, October 2). British Air’s New Challenges; Walsh Must Tackle Rising Pension Deficit, Transition at Heathrow. Walstreet Jornal , p. B.12.

Milmo, D. (2008, April 16). You’re fired: T5 fiasco proves terminal for BA bosses as Walsh takes personal charge. The Guardian.

Nexis,UK. (2005, December 23). British Airways Walsh step up BA turnaround. Travel Trade Gazette UK & Ireland , p. 12.

Posner, & Kouzes. (2002). leadership the challange. san fransisco: jossey bass.

Stogdil, R. (1974). Handbook of leadership: A survey of literature. New York: Free Press .

Travel Weekly(UK). (2009). BA bosses to work without pay in July. Travel Weekly(UK) , 7.

Walsh, W. (2009, August 27). I Didnt Set out to be a CEO. (T. Independant, Interviewer)

wright, p. l., & taylor, s. d. (1984). improving leadership performance: a practical approach to leadership. london: prentice-hall international Inc.

Bryant S. E. (2003), “The role of Transformational and Transactional Leadership in Creating, Sharing and Exploiting Organizational Knowledge”, Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 9 (4), pp. 32-44

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