Leadership. There is a lot of business press ink devoted to identifying it, educating one on how to become one, and evaluating various leadership strategies. Those can have value, for sure, although many don’t because they aren’t being written by actual leaders who have faced difficult challenges.
For me, I want to hear from real leaders who have been tested and who have come out on the other side with practical and actionable advice that I can apply to my daily work.
While it wasn’t necessarily intentional, our recent Annual Meeting content focused heavily on leadership, but from a diverse set of backgrounds. Before those memories dull, I wanted to take a moment and pass along some of my thoughts on leadership that flowed from the event.
First, for those of you unable to join us, we had three highly accomplished leaders as key speakers: Richard Parsons, former Chairman and CEO of Time Warner; Jim Harper, former EVP and Head of Real Estate for Continental Bank of Illinois; and Alan Mulally, former President & CEO of Ford Motor Company.
Despite coming from different industries and serving different clienteles and even working in different times, there were some shared characteristics among the three. First, they were all passionate about being able to lead others and to serve as the chief strategist for their respective organizations. Second, they all exuded self-confidence and imparted both energy and optimism. And third, while they are all proud of their achievements, they were all also quick to recognize that what they accomplished took efforts from their teams.
Here are my key takeaways from the three leaders:
- Through his storied career, he has seen it all, rescuing Dime Bancorp from near insolvency and disassembling what he called “the worst merger in corporate history” (Time Warner and AOL). Throughout all the challenges, he confronted them with a calm, measured demeanor, and when he recognized the need for bold action to cut his losses with the TW/AOL merger, he moved decisively to the next stage without recrimination or remorse.
- Dick always gave highest priority to his most valued audiences-customers, shareholders, and employees.
- His credo for leadership: “Leaders define reality and give hope.”
- Jim gave high value to training employees to help prepare them to be their best. Much of this training was hands-on soon after they joined his organization
- He also felt it important to create your own culture, and so while the bank holding company may have had a stodgy, conservative atmosphere, his real estate organization hummed with energy and vitality
- Jim saw the value of recruiting for intelligence, passion, and collegiality. He knew he could teach the rest.
- Well before his time, Jim saw the values of diversity as a business imperative----he recognized that it takes a variety of talents and backgrounds to create a truly effective means of satisfying the customer.
- Alan exuded a cheery , almost “aw shucks” optimism in all that he did, but beneath that genuine exterior was a steely determination to get the job done.
- He took the time in all that he did to solicit viewpoints and contributions, but with everyone and everything focused on “the plan.”
- Teamwork was paramount for him. He gave everyone he inherited a chance, but he was also decisive in moving out those who wanted to row the boat in the opposite direction.
- When all seemed overwhelming, like a $17 billion annual loss, he focused on simplifying the mission to achieve maximum focus on the collective goals of the team.
- When times were toughest, he was calmest and most focused on winning the small battles to keep the larger battle achievable.
In the end, I think leadership is something quite personal. There are certainly some key traits that many leaders exhibit. But these three different experiences convinced me that real leadership is authentic. In other words, you have to find YOUR leadership style. You can learn from those who come before you, but ultimately you need to figure out how YOU connect with your team, motivate them and, when necessary, see them through difficult times.For me, that challenge came during the housing-induced Great Recession; we not only faced losing our primary source of capital (e.g., Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) but, as an association, we faced a financial situation that put our members and employees on edge. We got through that through a combination of the techniques outlined by our speakers. We "defined reality, but gave hope." We stayed calm and rallied everyone together to find ways to cut costs. We created an environment of energy, energy to tackle what was before us. It's the same playbook we've used when faced with other disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. But the important thing was that our reaction was one based on our culture and our shared values.
As our industry continues to grow in sophistication, I would urge us to be mindful of the leadership we exhibit, internally and externally. The most successful leaders, in my opinion, are those who are authentic.