Following is the text of remarks I delivered at the closing of the 22d Annual Black Management Association Conference, Kellogg School of Business, Northweswtern University, Chicago, IL, on February 21, 2009.
Today, as never before, we need enlightened, effective leadership. We need leadership that is focused on recognizing and finding solutions to the problems that threaten our economic livelihood; that threaten our security; that threaten our very existence as a species. Whether it is global warming, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or the bursting of the next economic bubble, without effective leadership we will continue to blunder and wander aimlessly, until we fall of the cliff of extinction. If these statements sound alarming, they are meant to be. In today’s world the pace of change is too great to trust to ad hoc solutions for our survival. If we continue to trust in luck to make it, that luck will surely one day run out. Everything moves faster in our world today, the good and the bad. And, we as people on this increasingly small planet are totally interconnected. You’ve all, I’m sure, heard the one about the butterfly flapping its wings in a rain forest and causing a hurricane a continent away. Well, that’s not as farfetched as you might think. In the early part of this century, when SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) first appeared in Vietnam, it was soon discovered that it had originated in southern China and had been brought to Vietnam by an American businessman. In a short span of time, almost before it had been recognized, it had made its way to North America. That’s how fast things move today. Currently, as you’re no doubt well aware, the collapse of the U.S. real estate market threatens not only the American economy, but European and Asian economies as well. We live in a world where we are all, to some extent, connected by an electronic umbilical. Crimp the flow of sustainment in one place and the pain is felt in many other locations as well. If Homo sapiens is to continue to exist on this planet, we are really going to have to, in the words of President Obama, “pick ourselves up, and dust ourselves off.” If we’re to get out of the hole we’re in, we’re going to have to stop digging, and develop the leadership to build ladders. What, you might rightly ask, should this modern, twenty-first century leadership be like? From nearly five decades of study and practice of leadership, I’ve come to the conclusion that it need not be complicated. It is, in fact, really quite simple. First, we need leadership and leaders capable of looking beyond self and focusing on the greater good. We need to stop making and protecting rice bowls and start finding ways to grow more rice, and then learning to share it to ensure that everyone gets an adequate amount. We need leadership that focuses on results rather than rules. Never again should a child die from an infected tooth because the process of getting proper dental care is too complicated. We are in need of leadership that looks at ‘we’ rather than ‘they.’ Leadership in the global world should be about tearing down the walls that divide us and on building roads to connect us. We need leaders who are sensitive to our essential ‘oneness’ as humanity, rather than leadership that is obsessed with the primacy of select groups or individuals. I met a young lady when I was ambassador to Cambodia who exemplifies this leadership trait. A former employee of a UN agency, she noted that children of people who lived near dump sites were not being educated, because they had to work in the dump picking trash to help support their families. The school system insisted the children had to come to school. But, if they left the job sites, the family income suffered, and they couldn’t afford the school fees. What this young lady did was to create an organization, funded in part from her own money, in part from private donations, to take school to the kids. Now, thanks to her focus on others, hundreds of children who were previously condemned to a life of illiteracy and poverty are being given a chance to improve their lives. This age needs leaders who will first and foremost do the ‘right’ thing. It is not enough to be a Mussolini and get the trains to run on time, we need leaders to ensure those trains are going to the proper destinations. I’m sure each of you at some time in your life has worked for or with someone who worries about making sure everything is done strictly by the book. Seldom do they ask if what they are doing is the right thing to do, just that it be done by the rules. The global world needs new leaders who are not afraid to challenge the established order and who value and nature initiative and creativity. The most effective global leaders will be those who can not only think outside the box, but who can completely ignore the box. Let me give you an example of the kind of ‘out of the box’ thinking on your feet that needs to be routine. Forty years ago, in fact, nearly exactly forty years ago to the very day, as a young military officer, I served in the Vietnam War. I was in an organization that conducted long-range reconnaissance missions deep within enemy territory. We would send lightly armed teams of ten to twelve men into areas where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese operated to gather information about them. These teams were usually sometimes led by a captain or lieutenant, but more often than not the team leader was a young sergeant. One of the missions really sticks in my mind. A young sergeant and his team which consisted of another American army sergeant and ten local tribesmen, called Montagnards, had just been dropped off by helicopter and were about a kilometer off the landing zone, when they were attacked by a force of approximately 200 North Vietnamese. They were surrounded on three sides by the enemy and had their backs to a hill. Conventional doctrine is that in situations like this, you establish a defensive position and call for reinforcements. Conventional doctrine was designed for conventional situations. The sergeant knew that if he followed the normal routine he and his team would be killed – you will note I said killed, not killed or captured. Our teams were such a thorn in the side of the enemy that in most cases if they were overwhelmed and captured, they were immediately executed. What do you think the sergeant did? The last thing anyone – especially a numerically superior enemy – would expect. He lined his team up, shoulder to shoulder and gave the order to charge. They rose up out of that elephant grass, yelling and firing (not wildly, but with deadly accuracy), and ran right at those 200 well-armed North Vietnamese soldiers. The result of this encounter was, the North Vietnamese broke and ran, and our guys were recovered without a scratch. That, ladies and gentlemen, is truly “out of the box” thinking. Effective leaders in the global world don’t have to have all the answers. They will spend their effort determining the right questions, because they know the “answers are in the room.” While the traditional view is that the leader will find a solution to the problem so that others can implement it, the truly effective leader in the global world will leverage all the talents available to the group, and will focus on helping the team to find its answers. Let me give you a negative example of the leader with all the answers. Years ago I worked for a supervisor who, though well-meaning, operated by the rule that as leader, you had to know it all, and you had to ‘do something’ to every piece of paper that crossed your desk. The result of her micromanagement, every routine letter requesting information about a visa case, was meticulously scanned and mostly rewritten. Did we do a better job? Heck no; we started getting lazy and just throwing any old junk on the paper, knowing she would rewrite it anyway, so why waste the energy. Furthermore, we as a section were constantly being criticized for the lateness of our paperwork. I’ll give you one guess as to why that was so. There you have it. A relatively simple prescription for and description of effective leadership that can guide us through the tumult of the 21st century. You, each of you, has it in you to effective lead your organizations and communities. My challenge, step up and lead. Thank you for your kind attention.
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial