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Five Qualities of Great Leaders

by Claire Huang

Claire Huang shared what she has learned through her wide range of leadership experiences in marketing, communications, and brand management at the opening seminar for MHI’s mentoring 2015-16 year. Many of the attendees have asked for a copy of the talk. Working with Claire, we have adapted her lecture notes into narrative form and are happy to offer them to you below.

So much great work has been produced and written on leadership. Drawing on this prior work, I have selected five areas of leadership that I believe have the most impact. The way I remember them is by thinking about the qualities of a simple lead pencil.  

The most important quality of a great leader and a pencil is what is inside.

Great leaders are persons of integrity, with high standards. Their actions are based on a sound moral groundwork.  People can see when you do the right thing, whether it is something very small or something larger.  A good way to develop your vision of what leadership with integrity means is to read books about great men and women. 

Great leaders are disciplined. They exercise self-discipline but also require discipline of their teams. They have standards for behavior, communicate these, and give those working with them honest feedback.  

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India's movement for independence from Britain, is a great example of a true leader with both discipline and high standards. Gandhi exercised non-violent civil disobedience and has served as an inspiration for freedom causes all over the world. He was imprisoned repeatedly for his teachings. He undertook lengthy fasts as protest and also as a means of self-purification. Gandhi focused on self-awareness as well as discipline. As you grow in self-awareness you will begin to understand why you feel what you feel and why you behave as you behave. This enables you to have better control over your thoughts, words, and actions.

Great leaders focus on supporting others. Leaders who are supportive sense and understand how other people feel and show a sincere interest in those around them. They build trust and inspire their colleagues to overcome challenges. They foster efficiency and focus on eliminating fears. This helps to prevent colleagues from engaging in internal rivalry and conflict. Jack Welch, the celebrated former CEO of General Electric, said, "Before you are leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is about growing others." 

The second thing that a leader and a pencil have in common is that they sometimes make mistakes. But sometimes we can erase them. Making mistakes is part of life. The best leaders face up to the facts, engage others in the issue, and move ahead to correct their mistakes. Problems do not age well. Great leaders have the fortitude to confront problematic issues promptly and move forward in spite of them. 

Great leaders, like pencils, experience sharpening. In other words, they are honed and made more effective by adversity and change. If you are a great leader, you will use that sharpening to make you better. Great leaders understand that problems will arise, but they are expert at solving problems effectively and then using what they have learned to make their teams and themselves better. Before making decisions, make sure you gather relevant information, get input from all concerned parties, and analyze the information. This is important for everyday issues as well as larger ones. 

Pope Francis is known for his warmth, his humility, and his desire to avoid fanfare. He moved out of the traditional suite in the Apostolic Palace into a small apartment in the Vatican guesthouse. Here he lives simply, avoiding special privileges and attention. What he is less known for is his ability to solve problems quickly and decisively. He made major changes in the Vatican bank, replacing the boards of the bank and its main regulatory body with respected business people from around the globe. Although there has been pushback from entrenched interests at the Vatican, Francis has not been easily influenced. He gets information on important church personnel and organizations from a variety of sources instead of relying on a few insiders. Operating budgets are carefully managed to ensure that as much money as possible can go to charity. 

For both a pencil and a leader to function effectively, it is important to be held in someone else’s hand. For people of faith, it is about being alert to the presence of God and trying to align one’s actions and decisions with His will. It is also about choosing trusted mentors, developing productive connections, and seeking different perspectives. Great leaders actively seek input from others on how to improve performance. They use this input, together with their own insights, to differentiate and calibrate issues, sifting out the less important from the more important. Leaders who do well in this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone. 

Abraham Lincoln, without question one of the great leaders in history, surrounded himself with people, including his rivals, who had strong ambitions and who felt free to question his authority. For example, Lincoln brought Salmon Chase into his cabinet as treasury secretary, knowing that Chase craved the presidency for himself and was repeatedly undermining him with other cabinet members and Congress. So long as he was doing a good job at his post, that was more important than personal feelings. But Lincoln’s motive was not just to put rivals in positions of power, his intention was to choose the ablest people for the good of the country. Lincoln came to power when the nation was in peril, and he had the intelligence and self-confidence to know that he needed the best people by his side, people who were leaders in their own right and who were very aware of their own strengths. That’s an important insight whether you’re the leader of a country or the CEO of a company. 

Finally, great leaders want to make a mark. Great leaders have a vision, a purpose. They have meaning in their lives. Daniel Pink, a noted author on motivation, talks about three areas that motivate people. The first is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, or autonomy.  The second is the desire or impulse to learn and create new things, or mastery. The third is the wish to do better by ourselves and our world which he calls purpose or meaning. Find a purpose that is outside of yourself, one that is bigger that what you can achieve for yourself and speaks to what can you achieve for the greater good.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was focused on helping the poor. In addition to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, the nuns in her order take a fourth vow to give "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor." She expanded the idea of poverty, saying, "We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty." She helped us realize that loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.

Successful businesses, too, have a strong sense of purpose. Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. Apple is about challenging the status quo. Purpose- driven companies outperformed the Standard & Poor 500 by 10 times from 1996 to 2011. If you find a larger purpose in your life and your work, one that benefits not only you, but also society, others will join you in your quest.

Having a vision is one thing, but the next thing is to operate with a focus on results. Leadership is not only about developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives, but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the work that has the highest value.

To summarize the areas that make great leaders:

Great leaders focus on what is inside: strong integrity, discipline, supporting others.

Great leaders make mistakes, admit them, and have the fortitude to continue and learn.

Great leaders understand that they will experience sharpening through adversity, but they don't just endure, they use what they've learned to do better 

Great leaders understand that they also need to be held in someone's hand; they collaborate to understand different perspectives. 

Great leaders have a bigger purpose in their lives. And this purpose drives them to do good not just for themselves and their families for but society. A bigger purpose. What is yours?

A Good Leader Is Also a Good Friend

By Mireia Las Heras and Esther Jiménez

We live in a fast-moving and ephemeral culture. It’s fashionable to invent new terms without thinking too deeply about their meaning. In this respect, leadership is described variously as visionary, transactional, lateral, situational, autocratic, emotional, resonant and charismatic─with more to come when these don’t deliver. In popular and academic literature, a leader is a winner and someone who enjoys power. 

Friendship is relegated to the world beyond work. In the workplace, it is a word with negative connotations, associated with influence peddling, string pulling, and, of course, nepotism. Sometimes this is based in reality. One only need look at the so-called “positions of trust” in the social and political life of many countries.

Let us look at the essence of leadership and friendship. Leading means, to paraphrase Salinas, bringing out the best in others. And friendship is, in essence, a disinterested relationship based on trust and affection between people, which is borne out of and strengthened by sharing common goals. As it was put in the title of a book written by one of our professors: to lead is to educate.

In every human enterprise, even one as important as a football team, it is essential that there are friendly relations between the various components in order to increase the chance of achieving one’s goal. It’s vital that everyone participates and contributes to achieve the mission. It’s not enough for everyone to score a goal, however useful that might be. What’s needed is for everyone to want to win the game even if that means not being the one who scores the goal. 

To be a leader who gives orders also means being a collaborator who obeys. And this mandate, if it’s going to be developed and perfected and bring out the best, is at the same time a service. And it only functions when someone is considered a friend, someone who shares a common interest. It’s a long way from the leadership of the list of the 500 most powerful men─or women, if only it was the same thing!─in the world. Leadership and power are not synonymous and, although they aren’t mutually exclusive, neither do they go hand in hand. Magnates and dictators have power without being leaders, while a mother or a teacher may be a stupendous leader without wielding power. 

Leadership and service require each other; they are manifestations of the same thing and are sustained by friendship. “When he pours, he reigns,” ran the slogan in the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. It’s a good phrase: a person is at the same time someone who serves and someone who governs, without seeking their own self-interest. 

A leader has to know how to see and evaluate. And this doesn’t just mean assessing qualities and defects, but developing and bringing out people’s full potential. In the current climate, where products have a short life cycle and where change is the norm rather than the exception, and knowledge rather than experience is what is valued, leaders need to promote friendship to foster the development of their fellow workers. That way, leaders and their colleagues will be able to make clear decisions and face challenges through constant evolution.

Mireia Las Heras is Assistant Professor of Managing People in Organizations, IESE Business School.
Esther Jiménez is Manager of the International Center for Work and Family, IESE Business School.
This essay was first published in the Alumni Magazine IESE, July-September 2011.


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The Power of Authenticity

By Teresa Carale, MHI President

The cover of the January–February 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review magazine featured: “The Problem with Authenticity: When It’s OK to Fake It Till You Make It.” Is there truly a problem with authenticity?

It would be difficult to find anyone who disagrees with the power of image. As a picture is worth a thousand words, one’s image produces impressions on others that can be deep and lasting. For some, however, there appears to be a conflict between the two concepts: image and authenticity. Some argue that there is no need to worry about image if one is authentic. Certainly, authenticity bridges the gap between reality and image.

A strong, positive image can go a long way in enhancing the influence of a leader. If there is incongruity between the image and reality, the image generated will eventually fracture, and any influence a leader initially had will be lost. On the other hand, if one’s purpose is to enhance one’s image so that one’s best qualities are emphasized, or one puts forward qualities that are most important for the job or responsibility one has, then there is no conflict with reality, and no problem with a lack of authenticity.

There are various ways to enhance one’s image. Consultants work with leaders to enhance their executive presence, as Ginny Baldridge explained in one of the break-out sessions during MHI’s recent Fashion Intelligence Symposium. The best starting point, however, is self-knowledge, which consists not only in being aware of one’s strengths and limitations, but also in being aware of how one is perceived by others and how one relates to others. This goes well beyond “This is who I am—take it or leave it.” A leader is open to changing and improving not only one’s image, but also one’s character and values. A leader is open to striving to be a better person and thereby a better leader.

Authenticity is so important that we at Murray Hill Institute have chosen it as the theme for next year’s Fashion Intelligence Symposium: “Authenticity in Fashion.” We also support the concept of authenticity through our mentoring program, leadership seminars, and conferences.

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From Clean to Serene

By Virginia Boles

This August, I began teaching at a school in Manhattan. I was working in the faculty lounge (a fairly small space where a lot of supplies are stored), and one of the other teachers mentioned, “Wow, they did a great job organizing this room! You should have seen it last year.” I was struck by how much the clean, orderly, cared-for space was appreciated by my co-workers. Now I’ve been there for a couple of months, and slowly but surely, the faculty lounge has begun to suffer the “tragedy of the commons.” From my co-worker’s comment at the beginning of the school year, I realized how much serenity an orderly, clean workspace can give. So, I’ve tried to do my part to keep the faculty room clean. It can be small things like changing the water cooler bottle when it runs out, emptying the trash can or putting in a new liner, throwing away the little shreds of paper left by the paper cutter, throwing away an empty cup left on a desk. These small details, which don’t take much time, make a huge difference after a while in keeping an area clean. It’s something that no one will notice if it’s taken care of, but that everyone will notice if it’s not taken care of. So with only a little bit of extra effort on our part, we can bring more serenity to our workplace, and help people be happier while they work.

Do you have an experience you would like to share about changing the culture in your workplace? Email us at

Ngozi Agbim, 1939-2013

By Alice Trimmer

Ngozi Agbim was a dear friend and colleague whose life was suddenly and tragically cut short by a traffic accident one terrible day last June. Ngozi’s life and career embodied many of the ideals of the Murray Hill Institute. Ngozi was a librarian by profession and for many years was the head of the library at LaGuardia Community College. The library is at the heart of any educational institution, and under Ngozi’s leadership, the library at LaGuardia became known throughout the vast City University system for its outstanding service. While maintaining a distinguished career and busy family life as wife and mother of three, Ngozi always made time to befriend a wide variety of women from all walks of life. In addition, she and her husband Silas would periodically leave their home in Brooklyn to pay their families a visit in their beloved Nigeria. One of those visits gave rise to a project that stretched over several years—what we came to call “The Enugu Book Project.”

The project had its roots in the late 1990s, when Ngozi visited Enugu, a city near her hometown in Nigeria. She saw that the resources for education in that city were very poor; schools were in disrepair and the children had no books. At the same time, there were several universities and a medical school in the area. She visited Uzammiri Study Center, which was a gathering place for students to come to study, and realized that they had no books or other resources. When she got back to New York, Ngozi marshaled a group of her friends and colleagues to help. Under Ngozi’s leadership, the group formulated a project to seek donations of books and bring them over to Africa to set up a lending library in this center for the use of the students and other people of the community. Working in partnership with Service Brings Smiles, an initiative that organizes service projects for young people, the plan was to bring college students to Enugu to spend time repairing a local school as well as setting up the library and possibly a computer lab as well.  But then the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center took place, and everything changed.  In the post-attack atmosphere, it was no longer deemed wise to travel, especially with young students.

So Ngozi and her New York friends revised the plan: the team would catalog all the books donated and send them over as a completed library. Soon the books came pouring in. Ngozi and her family had some empty space on the first floor of their house. Half of the floor was devoted to Silas’ office. The other half became the staging area for the project. Nearly every Saturday afternoon, Ngozi would invite her friends and colleagues over to work on the books. There were all sorts of books—textbooks, books of history and literature, novels, how-to books. The team would quickly review and sort them, setting aside for discard those that were not suitable for the library because of content or poor condition, and passing the others to Ngozi. Ngozi would catalog them, using an online service that would return the completed sets of cards by mail.  When the cards came back, they were placed in the books and filed in the card catalog; Ngozi had acquired an old-fashioned wooden card catalog for this purpose. The completed books were packed in boxes and the boxes taped shut. This was a multi-step process that went on for years.  All in all, about 1,500 books were boxed up for shipment, finally finishing in early 2006.

As the project was winding down, the challenge of finding an affordable and secure way to ship the books had to be confronted. Finally, with the help of friends in Nigeria, the books were safely delivered. But the card catalog went missing for quite awhile, until it was finally located in a warehouse. Sarah Berlinghieri Krawczyk recalls that Ngozi was there to witness the grand “reveal.” “As they opened each box, they poured over the books, looking in them and reading them, as a hungry person looking at a gourmet meal presented to him! They were so grateful!   They were so awed and excited that Ngozi had to keep bringing them back to the task at hand—getting the books on the shelves and setting up the library!”

The Enugu project is remembered fondly by all those who participated. The book afternoons were incredible, a unique kind of experience for many. They had the atmosphere of an old-fashioned quilting bee, the rooms filled with the joy of shared work and conversation. The volunteers came from all over—women who Ngozi had met at professional and cultural gatherings, her fellow librarians, people she met in her parish. Ngozi had a gentle way of asking for help that rendered it unthinkable to say “No,” and her example inspired everyone to invite their own friends and family to help. The variety of professions and backgrounds among the group made for lively conversation as we shared workplace and other life experiences, opinions, and free advice. The afternoons always ended laughing and talking while sharing an evening meal in Ngozi and Silas’ dining room. The commitment of the group was impressive, in light of how many years it went on, and also considering that the trek to Brooklyn was lengthy for many. Some people came only a few times, some came very consistently, but all left energized by the friendly atmosphere and by working towards a common goal that would benefit an entire community.

Around the same time that the Enugu project was winding down, Ngozi retired from LaGuardia.  Far from just taking it easy, she put her energies in co-founding the US branch of the Harambee Foundation, a global initiative that “Helps Africans Help Themselves.” Harambee USA partners with African-based organizations to support educational and developmental initiatives. State-side, the organization seeks to educate people to recognize the richness and complexity of African culture. At its international meeting in Rome in October, the Harambee Foundation launched the “Ngozi award” to honor Ngozi’s memory. The award will recognize the work of “a professional journalist who has distinguished themselves in spreading an image of African that goes beyond existing stereotypes.”

A leader in her profession, a creative and energetic supporter of her homeland, and a loyal and generous friend, Ngozi showed us by her example how it is truly possible for one person to be an impetus to bring good to many.