Thank you. I would like to start by thanking the Silicon Valley Educational Foundation for honoring me tonight. As we’ve heard tonight, this organization has done an incredible job of supporting the educational needs of the children in our community. I am particularly honored in light of the individuals who have been past Pioneers and Purpose award winners, including my good friends Larry Sonsini, John Thompson and Diane Greene. Each of these individuals have inspired me over many years, and consistently exhibit the leadership characteristics that I will be discussing shortly.
John, thank you very much for the kind words. It is always so special to have a good friend make an introduction. I will be sure to have our children listen to that speech over and over as they get older and more rebellious!
Thank you all who are in attendance and who support the Foundation as donors, teachers and administrators;
Thank you to my wife, Agatha, and my family who make me a better person every day.
And congratulations to the Teacher of the Year, Lisa Carrell, for her commitment and accomplishment as recognized tonight.
Education has always been a foundation in my life. I am the youngest of 3 boys born into a middle class family and raised in the suburbs of Chicago in the mid 1960’s. We attended public schools thru high school and in 1976 I headed west to attend Stanford University and, subsequently, the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
My parents and grandparents were completely dedicated to making sure we had access to, and respected the value of, a good education. Fortunately we lived in a time when schools were well funded and excellent schools were accessible to almost anyone regardless of their economic position in life. As an example, my father grew up with little privilege in a one room rented apartment above a bar and had one pair of pants for school and one pair of pants for church. He went to school on the south side of Chicago and was able to attend college on the GI bill. Through opportunity, hard work and smarts he was able to achieve success in the form of all of his children attending college and graduate schools.
My parents and grandparents made significant sacrifices to make sure my brothers and I had the opportunity to be educated, and they provided the guidance to make sure we understood the benefit of hard work and the good fortune we all had to have access to a great education. I am forever cognizant and grateful for their sacrifices.
Agatha and I have been deeply committed to supporting organizations such as Silicon Valley Education Foundation over many years. I frequently say that “God did not allocate brains by income,” and it is thru the efforts of everyone in this room that we are creating opportunities for children of any background to experience the benefit of academic success.
It takes true leadership to create, support and sustain an organization as effective as SVEF. In a time when leadership is so necessary to solve global challenges in education, health care, economic opportunity, food safety, social justice and the environment, and yet seems generally lacking or misguided from many of today’s world leaders, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what it means to be a great leader.
In speaking, writing, or thinking about “leadership,” the question of whether leaders are born” or “made” seems inescapable. I have thought deeply about the question of “where leadership comes from,” and I have discussed at it great length with many of the amazing leaders I have met.
I conclude that the answer to this question is not “either/or,” but rather “and.” Marcus Aurelius captured the essence of the problem in observing that “we are too much accustomed to attribute a single cause that which is a cause of several, and the majority of controversies come from that.”
When I was younger, I believed strongly in one answer: that the “natural born leader” theory was a myth. In America we are raised to believe that hard work determines fate and character; and as the youngest of three sons born into a middle class (at best) home, it was perhaps natural to believe anyone could be a leader. In that belief, I had a shot.
Despite my beliefs, I grappled with the reality that some individuals seemed “different” or “more exceptional” than others, although my definition of “exceptional” differed from that of the traditional standard-bearers. The measure by which I made this determination had little to do with “accepted” measures of excellence such as grades, money, athletic ability, or attractiveness; instead, I began to see “natural-born leaders” as individuals with innate abilities to empathize with others, assimilate disparate pieces of information, and motivate teams and individuals to take positive action. As I have gotten older, I have reflected on these types of people and realized that regardless of their paths in life, they all seem to turn into leaders. However, under the right conditions, even people who otherwise wouldn’t be categorized as “leaders” can clearly develop and sustain leadership capability.
The model I use to frame effective leadership uses the word “leadership” to convey the message. We begin with “L.E.A.D.,” which describes four primary elements of great leadership: learn, empower, adapt, and delegate.
“Learn” is the first and most important word in this model. A leader must be open-minded to new ideas. Learning and listening are highly positively correlated. Once you accept that you are not the absolutely expert on any subject, you are more open to continued learning, and thereby more likely to acquire new information that can be used to develop a successful plan.
“Empower” is the ability to grant others the freedom to implement a plan that accomplishes a goal. Most great leaders are defined by consistent success; this consistency is oftentimes the result of the leverage created by empowerment. No less a great leader than Bill Gates said…. “As we look to the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”
“Adapt” reflects the reality that all plans are developed against an assumed plan that never turns out completely as expected. Many military historians would define Julius Caesar as the greatest general of all time. In addition to a multitude of skills, Caesar was probably best known for his ability to “adapt.” As described by Tacitus, Caesar displayed “prudence in counsel, courage in the field, calm presence of mind in the midst of danger, and an amazing dexterity in sudden and unforeseen emergencies.” An effective leader creates a support system that allows the team to adapt by giving subordinates the authority to self-organize in order to infuse dynamic reality into a static plan.
“Delegate” is the necessary complement to adaptation. A leader must be clear about delegating what types of decisions may be made by different levels of the organization. This is oftentimes a function of the variance to plan, or the impact that a decision might have on the overall objective, or on the probability of successful outcome.
And finally, we must honor the effort and the result. Too often in life, as soon as we achieve our goal, we hurry to anticipate and plan our next set of objectives. We must learn to create space to allow team members to reflect on their accomplishments and understand their worth before moving on. When we fail to do so, we trivialize the objective and undermine our own leadership. Above all, people want to do things that really matter.
The second part of the “leadership” framework is “E. R.,” which stands for “earn respect.” “Earn” implies work. You have to invest yourself in a fully committed way to be a great leader. It takes hard work and good work to earn anything, and it takes especially hard work to earn another’s respect.
“Respect” is at the fulcrum of the word and the model. It is the essential element. Above all else, the team must respect a leader to be successful consistently. The key to earning respect is to show respect. Respect commands respect, and to give respect is essentially to trust another implicitly. Trust is among the strongest forms of interpersonal connection.
I believe that respect is earned when you exhibit a consistent code of conduct over time. As team members learn that a leader will not waiver from “good conduct” in the event of stress or challenge, the leader gains the trust of the team. “Good” may sometimes be subjective, but not when it comes to some basic human benchmarks like honesty, dignity, honor, fairness, loyalty, compassion, or kindness. Al Shugart, Seagate’s founder and a highly accomplished business leader, used to tell people: “just be nice.” This was also reflective of his “keep it simple” approach to life, which was one of his key success factors as a leader.
In order to maintain a consistent code of conduct, one must possess self-respect and virtue. Someone who is not self-aware enough to accept who they are and appreciate what motivates them is likely to behave in an inconsistent manner. Among the great Greek and Roman leaders, virtue was typically the foundational behavior to which all in society aspired. Today, people think of this word as somewhat prudish, but it encompasses a set of values and behaviors that evoke goodness, morality, dignity, and decency. Most importantly, it commands respect.
The final four letters in the leadership model (“S.H.I.P.”) stand for solicit, honest, input, and peers. One can also think of this as “solicit honest input from your peers.” Create an environment where all team members are confident that they can contribute to the plan and the process, and share ownership of the accomplishment.
“Solicit” means to seek something actively. A great leader has to show interest and a willingness to connect with those he or she leads. Poor leaders are aloof and exclusive, which intimidates subordinates.
“Honesty” is among the most important characteristics of excellent leadership. Like respect, if you wish for clear and honest input, then you must conduct yourself in an honest way, both with respect to your personal code of ethics and to the information that you provide the team.
“Input” means that prior to determining a plan of action, a good leader leverages the team’s perspective to formulate strategy and tactics. As General Stan McChrystal explains, “effective organizational leadership requires context down and requirements up.” To the extent that the team has a “shared consciousness” of the goals and the tactics, changes and roadblocks are likely to be addressed more positively and proactively.
“Peers” reflects the somewhat obvious point that leadership requires a team. Leaders have to be comfortable assuming command while recognizing that the team is an entity in itself. While there are different roles and ranks of authority within the team, the entire entity is a peer group of sorts. In order to solicit honest input from your peers, you have to be able to listen.
As I became more successful in listening and trying to use the information I gained to solve the problem at hand, I gained the confidence necessary to consider different points of view. This confidence had the amplifying effect of also instilling confidence in myself. As I recognized that I was more open to the input of others, I gained a greater confidence that the resulting conclusion was likely to be more accurate. So it was the confidence in myself that allowed me to be a better listener.
Stated another way, when I meet people who are incapable of listening to an alternative view, or those who find it difficult not to be the ones talking, I now understand that much of this behavior is driven fundamentally by insecurity. This insecurity is masked by actions that are touted as “bravado,” “boldness,” or “decisiveness,” but this behavior limits dialogue, input, and data acquisition, and oftentimes results in a sub-optimal solution.
All of what I’ve described here can be learned. With practice and encouragement, many people can become great leaders. So why aren’t there more great leaders?
I think the answer is that in addition to these characteristics, there is always a bit of ”magic” in great leaders that inspires others to follow in hopes of doing great things. I think this “magic” is what causes, or confuses, the great debate of whether leaders are “made” or “born.” Clearly, leadership is more than a set of attributes—there are people with many leadership attributes who don’t “lead,” and there are others who are able to lead without possessing all of the necessary attributes—and although the “magic” is hard to define, we know it when we see it. I define it as a certain energy that combines courage, integrity, and passion. The formula is different for different people, and likely different for different situations.
Importantly, I think that the “magic” is in all of us. It’s just a matter of what unleashes the magic. For some, it is always on the surface, ready to be applied to any situation, and for others, it is inside, but can emerge in certain situations.
I asked 10 great leaders for one word or phrase to describe the most important element of a great leader (that is, the one ingredient that makes “leadership magic”). The leaders I asked included His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates, Alan Mulally, Meg Whitman, Bill Bradley, Maria Klave, Thomas Stafford, Joe Montana, Stan McChrystal, and Marcus Allen.
“Courage” was the word used most often by these leaders, and integrity, humility, empathy, and honesty were themes that appeared often in their comments. The ability to empower those being led was also consistent across all responses.
For me, a great leader has to be happy, humble, honest, and hard working. My single-word answer to describe these four “H’s” is “virtuous,” which I hope becomes more relevant in our world and in our vocabulary in the future.
So, thank you all for your participation tonight and lets all be leaders and have the courage and virtue to leave the world in a better condition for our children with an education system that is fair and equitable, economic opportunity that is broadly accessible, and a planetary environment that is thriving and diverse.