Dave Barger, co-founder of JetBlue Airways and University of Michigan alum, spoke at an event hosted by the Barger Leadership Institute as part of its “BLI Dinner With” series. Barger spoke to a crowd of about 15 students about leadership potential and opportunities for career growth on Friday at Mani Osteria and Bar.
Barger, a University donor who has given over $18 million to develop LSA programs, provided the foundational gift for the BLI in 2007. He served as the chief executive officer of JetBlue from 2007 to 2015 and is currently an operating partner at Connor Capital SB and a board member of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc.
The dinner opened with a short speech by Elizabeth Cain-Toth, public relations coordinator of the BLI. Cain-Toth said working with students has been an amazing experience.
“When I took this job, I thought it was just going to be another marketing job,” Cain-Toth said. “Six months in, I got to start working with students, and it has been an incredibly amazing experience for me.”
Barger echoed her sentiments and commented on how access to opportunities and networking for undergraduate students seems to have increased since he was a student at the University.
“You have this incredible access to opportunities because (the University is) so big, so how do you make it small?” Barger said. “It seemed to me that (access to opportunities) … tended to be in grad school and tended to be at your workplace. Now, 10 years later, … access to these alums or other people (is) in these fabulous settings, when you’re 19, 21, 22 years old, as opposed to in grad school or in the workplace.”
Barger shared how his imperfect vision, preventing him from becoming a pilot, led him to manage a company, which he considers to be the best thing that ever happened to him.
“Back in the day you had to have perfect vision to fly,” Barger said. “Whether it’s the Air Force, whether it’s for United Airlines. Probably the best thing that ever happened to me is that I didn’t become a pilot. Because my eyes weren’t 20-20, I had this great opportunity of leading a company.”
Barger emphasized the importance of making your own voice heard as well as paying attention to the people who are being led.
“Think about the organization that you’re a part of. Does your voice matter, is it heard?” Barger said. “Do people want your feedback? And then, how are you as a leader? Are you doing the same thing in terms of, the people who you’re leading, does their voice matter, are they being heard? Because the best ideas for the most part, they’re not with us, they’re around the people that we’re leading, day in and day out.”
When commenting on positivity and transparency as a leader, Barger talked about the value of being physically present with the people you’re leading.
“To me what’s most important is, when I think about how you communicate, is being present,” Barger said. “Are you in person when you’re communicating with somebody? I think once you connect in person … you’re being approachable.”
Barger advised attendees to find a line of work you’re passionate about, especially with the resources available to graduates of the University.
“Find something that you’re really, not just passionate about, but you’re being rewarded for,” Barger said. “And I don’t mean just with a paycheck, or with compensation, but just: the clock moves so fast, you’re having so much fun. Be selfish, and I mean that in a very professional way.”
When asked by event attendees whether leadership is an inherent characteristic or something that can be developed over time, Barger said leadership skills can be learned.
“I am absolutely of the opinion that it can be developed, taught, nurtured over time,” he said. “Am I given the opportunity to have access to that setting? That person? Give me the opportunity so that I can start to understand what’s happening there. You gotta be given the opportunity to refine it, you gotta be given the opportunity to make mistakes or to succeed.”
LSA freshman Aaron Williams said Barger’s opinions on the teachability of leadership resonated with him.
“I would say that leadership comes in many forms,” Williams said, “And that anyone can really be a leader.”
Barger ended the event by talking about what the new decade may hold for the airline industry, drawing from the opinion of Wolfgang Mayrhuber, the founding chairman and CEO of the German airline Lufthansa.
“Airlines ten years from now, it’s not about being an airline,” Barger said. “We sell mobility. We sell freedom. What you’re really selling is that kid who’s going to see his or her grandparents, that family who wants to get together for a reunion — freedom, mobility.”