Turn Off Your TV: What I’ve learned teaching leadership during the 2016 presidential campaign season

If you want great examples of leadership, don't watch the presidential debates. Look around you and you'll see plenty of role models who are doing the right things for the right reasons.

For more commentary from John Hillen, . And then the inevitable question comes:  “But you know, I was watching the presidential debate last week and…….”  Ugh.  I thought for a while about trying to rationalize and explain the differences in broadcasted political leadership during campaigns versus the attributes of running a large and complex organization, but it didn’t fly.  After all, I am teaching over the semester that leadership, character, and emotional intelligence are inseparable from gaining followers and inspiring performance in an organization or a community – regardless of context.

The MBA students in my Leadership class are working professionals, early-mid career.  Many of them are discerning the change in their career path I referred to in an earlier column, where one is relied on more for strategic and interpersonal abilities rather than technical and tactical skills.

It is a pretty elevated curriculum – last week we were reviewing author Jim Collin’s concept of “Level 5 Leadership” – leaders characterized by a combination of humility and yet fierce resolve.  We’ve spoken often of the importance of character, and how the more one advances in a career the more the source of authority becomes who you are, not what you can do.  We’ve spoken of being the chief ethical officer in your organization, of inspiring rather than directing people.

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So now I just hold up my hand and say, “Turn off your TV.”   It reminds me of when I used to hear my sons’ football coaches tell them in youth and high school football.  “Don’t watch the pros, you’ll learn all the wrong things, just listen to me.”

My point here is not to pile on the opprobrium that has been rightly heaped on this current political campaign season.  My point here to my students was that we don’t have to look to presidential candidates or Fortune 500 CEOs (who only seem to get in the news when they get in trouble – which is often enough unfortunately) as exemplars.  They need to look around more locally to find the example of leaders who are doing the right things and showing the amazing results that spring out of good leadership.

To aid in this, I’ve brought in speakers from the technology services industry here in the D.C. area, an industry chuck full of leaders focused less on their balance sheet, and more on their customers and their people.  The opposite approach of what I experienced when I worked in financial services in New York City. 

Kathy Albarado founded her company around a personal philosophy she framed over the years – that leaders don’t have to accept corporate culture (so many do),  or even their limits in framing it, but that leaders can wholeheartedly determine it with intention – and an exceptional culture can result.  She did it for her company and now provides the playbook to many other companies.  Every enterprise I’ve seen her touch is manifestly better for it.  That’s leadership.

Sid Fuchs, CEO of a large technology and engineering firm, not only took the time in his own career to deliberately bolster an important skill at which he felt he needed to improve, he then went on to write a popular book about it (Get Off the Bench) and share the message with others to make them better – thousands of extra hours a busy CEO spent to make those around him better.  That’s leadership.

Julian Setian, a perennial executive of the year finalist in the GovCon community, thinks constantly of the employees he has spread around the world – including in some pretty austere places.   He spends an enormous amount of time and energy trying to touch all of his employees and customers to make sure they are heard and that they feel a part of his family-owned business.  He even recently tied together his corporate team in the Army 10-mile race in Washington with a parallel 10-mile race run simultaneously at a military base his company oversees in Iraq.  It probably killed him that he couldn’t run in both simultaneously.  He has a lot of frequent flyer miles and even more heart.  That’s leadership.

Dawn Halfaker lost an arm fighting as an Army officer in Iraq, and came out of a long recovery to not only start an award winning technology services firm (now 200 people and growing quickly) and be named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, but also to chair the board of a huge charity and serve in many other philanthropic and inspirational roles.  That’s leadership.

Joe Martore and Sonny Kakar, both local GovCon CEOs, epitomized servant leadership and Level 5 leadership to my students when they spoke to class.  Both humble, both always more interested in you than themselves or their achievements, both dedicating enormous amounts of time and personal energy to their community as well as their customers and their employees.  And both are shrewd and competitive business leaders who are winning award after award for their thriving firms.  That’s leadership.

Dara Castle built her practice at a top 5 accounting firm into a regional powerhouse.  That’s great.  Like all the leaders I’ve brought in, she’s really good at the “X’s and O’s” of business leadership.  But what makes her more successful is she is trusted and admired, considered a strategic partner rather than a competent transaction services provider.  She plays leadership roles in multiple organizations and has a keen eye for developing talent in her organization and her industry.  She doesn’t get paid extra for that per se, but knows it makes her company better and her people more confident that they are working in the right place.  That’s leadership.

There are a lot of great companies and a lot of accomplished leaders in the Washington based technology services industry.  But I really find my thoughts turning to those leaders I admire.  And not just me, but leaders whom almost everyone admires for something about them, and not just about their corporate achievements.  It’s hard to apply that same lens, that same judgement, during an election season sometimes – especially now.

So, turn off the TV and look right next store for a leader worth admiring.