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I Teach "Be a Leader"

February 25, 2013

The other day during my commute to work, I noticed a subway ad for a local college that begins with the words, I Teach "Be a Leader," and then goes on to say, "I teach men and women to be the best managers they can be, but in reality I am creating tomorrow's leaders."

Given the fact that one of our giving priorities here at American Express is leadership development in the nonprofit sector (what we call "Developing New Leaders for Tomorrow"), the ad pulled me out of my normal commuter's complacency toward these subway billboards.

In particular, the advertising slogan reminded me of Abraham Zaleznik who wrote extensively about leadership. He draws 12 distinctions between managers and leaders:

  • Managers administer, leaders innovate.
  • Managers ask how and when, leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers focus on systems, leaders focus on people.
  • Managers do things right, leaders do the right things.
  • Managers maintain, leaders develop.
  • Managers rely on control, leaders inspire trust.
  • Managers have a short-term perspective, leaders have a long-term perspective.
  • Managers accept the status quo, leaders challenge the status quo.
  • Managers have an eye on the bottom line, leaders have an eye on the horizon.
  • Managers imitate, leaders originate.
  • Managers emulate the classic good soldier, leaders are their own person
  • Managers copy, leaders show originality.

Obviously, both effective managers and innovative leaders are needed for any well-run and viable organization, and Zaleznik wasn't denigrating managers – he was only pointing out attributes that separate good managers from great leaders.

Here at American Express, we don't attempt to teach people to be leaders. We think that anyone can be a leader, but we're particularly interested in emerging, high potential leaders in the nonprofit sector – those who have been identified by the heads of their organizations as individuals who need and want further professional development. We then attempt to provide the resources and the expertise to make that happen – either at the organizational level through grants or at the sector level through our various American Express Leadership Academy programs.

We also, of course, are interested in developing our own leaders . One of those iconic leaders at American Express is Aldo Papone, the former chairman and CEO of American Express Travel Related Services, and a current senior advisor to the company.

In his book, The Power of the Obvious – Notes from 50 Years in Corporate America, Aldo shares his personal insights and experiences. In one of those chapters entitled, "Staying at the Top Takes Leadership with Staying Power," Aldo outlines 10 "secrets" of effective leaders – many of them similar to those stated by Zaleznik above:

  • Be guided by principles rather than just business goals. Principles make the unknowable world a lot easier to comprehend.
  • Leaders inspire others to achieve goals they did not think possible.
  • Leadership is not being Number One in a group. It's letting the group be Number One.
  • There are two closely related leadership qualities. One is arrogance the other is confidence.
  • It's what you learn after you know if all that counts.
  • Sometimes fresh eyes are more valuable than vast experience.
  • Guard against narrow vision, the feeling that your product is at the center of the universe. This is a dangerous delusion.
  • Don't hunker in the bunker.
  • Meanings – and not just the facts and figures – are what's important.
  • Don't be so anxious to get to the top that you forgo developmental experiences along the way.

These words of wisdom won't teach you to be a leader, but they will help you be a better one –whether you work for a not-for-profit or a for-profit enterprise.

If you have a comment or question, please share it by clicking here. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter @tmcclimonCSRNow and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing!

P.S. Did you know that Harold Geneen, former CEO of International Telephone and Telegraph, once said, "Leadership cannot be taught; it can only be learned." He also said, "The only unforgivable sin in business is to run out of cash!"


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