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They Told Him Not to Take That Job

June 1 2015

A week or so ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Reynold Levy about his new book, They Told Me Not to Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center, as part of our spring American Express Leadership Academy in New York. A full recording of the conversation can be found here.

Dr. Levy was born and raised in Brooklyn, attended Hobart College and earned a PhD in Government and Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and a law degree from Columbia University. After serving as the staff director of the Task Force on the New York City Fiscal Crisis, he became the executive director of the 92nd Street Y in New York. A few years later, I worked for Reynold at the AT&T Foundation where he was its first president. After a subsequent stint as president of the International Rescue Committee, he spent 13 years as president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the main subject of his book.

While leadership (or the lack thereof) is a major topic of the book, one of the other main subjects is accountability (or again, the lack thereof) in the nonprofit world. Levy begins his book by extolling the many virtues of nonprofit organizations:

  • Nonprofits can rescue refugees and displaced people and reunite children separated from their families. They can eliminate cholera, polio, malaria, and HIV-AIDS from the face of the earth. They can revolutionize the delivery of health, educational, social and cultural services using the wonders of twenty-first century technology. They can do all of these things and much more when leadership is encouraged and when vital energy is aimed directly at the client and the cause.

But, Levy has also witnessed institutional disarray and what he calls "dereliction of duty" with nonprofit leadership gone awry:

  • When customers and audiences are poorly served. When budgets are in deficit condition. When operations are off kilter. And when balance sheets are drained of assets. Such performance failures are hardly inevitable. They are the consequence of poorly monitored institutions and of inept management.

Levy is not afraid to heap praise on those who succeed and scorn on those who fail in this endeavor. He praises his own board and senior leadership of Lincoln Center, and he takes a number of people to task for failed leadership at institutions like the New York City Opera, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. But, his critique of these leaders is presented not as finger-pointing, but as a warning to other nonprofit institutions that do not fully embrace their accountability to the public.

In the last chapter of his book, Levy lays out 25 leadership lessons that matter the most. Some of these have been foreshadowed in other parts of the book (Accountable for Results and Open to Improvement), but others are more personal to his own leadership style (Stay Focused, Avoid Distractions; Read, Travel, Network, Encounter Art; Pick Up the Pace; and the Persuasive Power of the Written Word).

He begins his chapter on leadership lessons with this one: The Art of Employee Recruitment and Retention -- generally regarded as one of the most important responsibilities of any CEO, but one that is sometimes disregarded in the nonprofit sector. "I am always on the prowl, seeking energetic, intelligent, curious, and ambitious new employees who wish to achieve extraordinary results," states Levy. "I look for both solo actors and team players, recruits brimming with the confidence to go it alone if necessary and able to work with others productively, whenever desirable." But, his confidence comes with a price: quoting David Rubenstein, he observes that he has "never encountered an outstanding performer in his professional life who worked from nine to five."

On the other hand, another lesson is Seek Work-Life Balance. While recognizing the need to achieve a balance across all aspects of one's life, Levy suggests that leaders should think of their lives in phases that "may require you to defer gratification and to sacrifice, at work and at home." In fact, he suggests that "to aspire at any given time for complete harmony between meeting the unpredictable challenges of the workplace and satisfying the often surprising needs of your children, your parents, your spouse and your friends is an open invitation to frustration."

That being said, one of the more important leadership lessons that Levy discusses is Make it Easier for Others to Help. From personal experience, I can say that he was, and is, a master of that.

If you have a question or comment, follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and let's start a conversation there.

In two weeks: More Leadership Lessons from the Boss


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