Alumni Column – Learning Leadership At Colgate

March 30, 2009, The New York Times, headline news: “GM Chief forced Out as Chrysler gets Merger Deadline,” “With Typical Drama, Woods Caps latest Comeback,” “D for Denmark, Renewing its Ties with the Balanchine Tradition.” Three unrelated headlines, three different sections of the newspaper and, for this writer, one recurring theme.

When I graduated Colgate at a time of economic upheaval, I was unable to find a job. I am not sure, like many of my peers, whether I had even considered a career path but a job certainly would have been nice; I know my parents concurred. In 1980 I knew the skills or endeavors that I was not professionally capable, qualified or interested, but the context was always etched in the negative. 29 years later, my career sightline is conveyed in the positive. To a great extent, that differential only became manifest in the last ten years. Why so long?

It is rooted in the skill sets that I embraced as a student, developed as a professional and enjoyed implementing as my career(s) progressed. For most of us, an agglomeration of skills is how we earn our professional credentials. It comes from another degree, honing our skills and being resident with other practitioners. Hopefully and eventually the recurrence leads to promotions. What was not taught in any of my skills-based jobs was my requisite need for leadership skills, leadership being not only part and parcel of one’s career but also as an imperative in life. I won’t be so pretentious as to define leadership. Most readers will simply search Wikipedia. I will say that my leadership skills at the time seemed deficient.

I was fortunate ten years ago to take a professional detour which has helped detail and define for me the concept of leadership. Leadership has its own skill sets which need to be harnessed, inculcated and made part of ones core values. Leadership for me ultimately emanates from my core values.

What I did not consciously realize as I pursued my first job in 1980 and the roughly next 18 years while developing a career using my increasing and more functional skills was that my Colgate liberal arts education helped instill what I ethically and morally valued. In other words, the leadership capabilities that I was trying to evolve were already lessons learned at Colgate in the myriad that is campus learning and living. I might add not all of those lessons learned are pleasant or bucolic in nostalgia.

So why today do I understand my career horizons in the affirmative? How do I value with whom I wish to dedicate my personal and professional time? To some extent it is still based on the utilization of skill sets but more importantly it is the imperative of leadership. The imperative to work with leaders with which I wish to interface and those leaders and leaderships I wish to avoid. Some considerations include: structures, organizations, the charismatic leader who inspires, the leader as teacher and mentor, the leader as expert, the leader as charlatan, the moral leader and the morally corrupt leader, the leader as innovator and the leader as visionary. Additionally, leadership comes in all types of styles and flavors. Some leaders are effective. Some are not. What were those headlines again?

I consider myself fortunate to work in a profession of innovators who lead by tangible artistic expression that leaves them naked to public criticism, the discussion of which changes creative dialogue.

Ah…Clarity in the footlights!

I wonder what leaders will be in tomorrow’s headlines?