“The leader’s role is to define reality, then give hope.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Last week, Kenneth Chenault, Chairman and CEO of American Express, came to Wharton as the first speaker of the co-sponsored Michael L Tarnopol Dean’s Lecture Series and the Wharton Leadership Lectures. Based on learnings from his own career, as well as from the 150+ year history of American Express, Mr. Chenault defined the responsibilities and characteristics that great leaders must espouse. He began the lecture with a challenge. “Leadership,” he said, “is a privilege. If you do not rise to the challenge then you should lose that privilege.” He argued that it is the challenging times when leaders are truly tested, when reputations are made or lost.
From freight to finance
AmEx was founded in 1850 as a freight forwarding company built on strong values of integrity and customer commitment. In the 163 years since its inception, AmEx has gone through a “journey of constant reinvention.” However, despite many economic, political, and business changes in the world, the company has maintained its foundation in its original values. Mr. Chenault points to the company’s response to 9/11 as an example of how those values permeate the entire organization. AmEx customer service representatives booked flights, waived fees, and went above and beyond to provide service to those affected by the tragedy.
Nose to the grindstone…
To define leadership simply, Mr. Chenault turned to Napoleon. “The leader’s role is to define reality, then give hope.” Defining reality, he argued, is difficult. It requires hard work to research the problem and openness and honesty to share that with those around you. People need to see their leader visible, in-charge, engaged, and constantly communicating. Yet, a leader must maintain composure, rising above the chaos and providing much needed reassurance. He quoted the founder of Cardinal Health, “a good leader must keep their nose to the grindstone and their eyes to the horizon.”
Key leadership traits
Keeping in mind that leaders are ultimately tested during the most challenging of times, Mr. Chenault provided a short list of universal traits he sees in good leaders.
- Integrity. More than just honesty. Integrity is a consistency between words and actions. It builds trust and trust is the foundation of leadership.
- Courage. Specifically, the courage to speak your convictions and engage in constructive confrontation.
- EQ/IQ. Mr. Chenault is not referring to Emotional Intelligence, but the Executional Quotient. If you have someone with EQ and IQ then you have a powerhouse. People with high EQ don’t list the reasons they failed, they find ways to execute successfully.
- Concern for people. Leaders are frequently confronted with difficult decisions that change the lives of many people and their families. Caring for others is a source of strength – leaders must be decisive and yet caring and genuine.
The only constant is change
After 31 years at AmEx, Mr. Chenault has had many experiences leading through difficult times including the most recent recession and 9/11. With rapid advances in technology and dramatic shifts in customer behavior, AmEx has had to constantly reinvent itself. Mr. Chenault emphasized that we will need to constantly innovate in order to be successful. However, he cautioned that without a strong core set of values, it can be easy to lose your way and sell yourself out. He urged the audience to develop a strong sense of what values they stand for and to never accept a job which is misaligned with those values.
Leadership can be learned
To earn the privilege to lead requires hard work, practice, and constant feedback. Mr. Chenault stressed that anyone in an organization can be a leader, regardless of title. Furthermore, strong leadership can be learned and even natural leaders must work hard in order to reach their full potential.
Our generation is no stranger to change. The ability to drive innovation and adapt to rapidly developing environments will provide a constant challenge regardless of industry. Mr. Chenault’s speech challenges us to decide whether we will be the leaders who merely accept change or who lead it.