December 1, 2012

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Joel Peterson: The Secret to Great Leadership

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Joel Peterson: The Secret to Great Leadership

Amy K. Stewart

December 1, 2012

Joel Peterson sits relaxed and unassuming in the Peterson Partners office, which has a vast southeastern view of the Wasatch Mountains. For today’s interview, he has donned a red tie dotted with tiny blue airplanes and clouds.

Besides being chairman of JetBlue Airways, Peterson is founder of Utah-based venture capital firm Peterson Partners. He also teaches Entrepreneurial Management at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), was director of the Stanford GSB Center for Leadership Development and Research, and serves as a director of Franklin Covey as well as Ladder Capital.

When asked what the secret of his success is, Peterson laughs and says he’s not successful at everything, but simply at what he feels is important to him. He is a father, a teacher and a leader in a number of business ventures.

If he could change anything about his life, Peterson says he would change course sooner on a variety of things—not sticking with something for so long when it isn’t working. “You hear people talk about how they waited too long to do something,” he says. “If I could do it all over again, I would trust my instincts more. Your heart knows things that your head has not yet discovered.”

Hobbies? Peterson says he works for fun. “Family and work, I will not compromise.” And that is why Peterson doesn’t golf. He does read a lot, however, especially on planes. The last book he read is Unbroken, the biography of World War II hero Louis Zamperini.

When it comes to what makes a great leader, Peterson says it’s “understanding leadership isn’t about me.” It’s about the mission, and about achieving something—a goal that people wouldn’t achieve on their own. “The job of the leader is to bring the right people on board, give them the tools they need to empower them, to celebrate their success and to thank them,” he says.

In his leadership class at Stanford, Peterson gives examples of leaders who are successful in leading through different ways, in every walk of life. For example, Father Greg Boyle, who organized the Homeboy Industries youth program in Los Angeles, uses vastly different leadership methods than John Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, Inc. Peterson advises young leaders to seek mentorship from seasoned executives.

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