Saturday, August 29, 2009

What Makes a Leader Great?

"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation." ~Aristotle

I have heard John A. Allison IV, the chairman of BB&T Corp., deliver his speech on the Winston-Salem, N.C., company's "10 core values" several times since I moved to North Carolina in 2000 to cover banks. The values have not changed, nor has the underlying message.
I'll acknowledge that his lecture resonates louder now than it did the first time I heard it, given the turmoil in financial markets, sizeable bank failures and bailouts, and the credibility lost by many banks over the past year.
This was also an entirely new forum, with Allison delivering the talk as a distinguished professor in practice at the Wake Forest University Schools of Business.
For Allison, the message is quite simple: your company will succeed if it does what is in the best interest of its customers. Shareholders are also rewarded, not by a short-lived burst in earnings but instead with reliable results that hold up relatively well even in the most difficult situations. So far, BB&T is proving him correct, continuing to post profitable quarter while maneuvering through the recession. That's not to say that the company won't take its lumps - it does have several quarters ahead where a shoe could drop. But so far the company is holding its own.
I wished Allison had been given time to address the company's purchase of Colonial Bank two weeks ago, which will present challenges but has also returned BB&T to being one of the nation's 10-largest banks. (Allison has long stated that banks need to be in that upper strata or miss out on the best opportunities for growth.)
Allison focused most of his comments on leadership. What makes a great leader? What preparation is needed? He shared his views in a fashion known quite well to those who have followed him over the years, quoting Aristotle, Jefferson, and shades (but no direct attribution) of Ayn Rand. But embedded in those quotes were some keen observations from the man himself.
“Leadership matters in all aspects of how we behave,” he said very early in his lecture. “When you look at failures in organizations, it often relates to failures in leadership.”
A great example of a managerial miscue: "Managers often mess up by wanting to change the result without trying to change the behavior." To Allison, such an oversight shortchanges both the employee who erred and the manager who overlooked the misstep. He also urged students to stay engaged, resurrecting a theme from orientation. The best managers, he said, “evade less and keep focus longer."
Without calling out any of his peers in banking, Allison touched on the fallout from bad business practices that allowed companies to pull in astronomical profits before the housing bubble burst. The message from the recent chaos? “Taking advantage of people isn’t selfish,” he said, noting that all living being act in their own self interest. “It is self-defeating.”
Allison reinforced another message delivered during orientation by Steve Reinemund, the dean of the Wake Forest University Schools of Business, urging students to find their passion. “You have to have a sense of passion and purpose in your work,” he said, calling them a key to happiness.
Another key: “Make the world a better place and do something you want to do.”

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