Business School

What Makes a Good Business Leader?

January 8, 2014

Judith Samuelson is the executive director and creator of the Business and Society Program, an independently supported program at the Aspen Institute founded in 1998. She is the recipient of the Bellagio Practitioner Residency Program, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Below, Samuelson shares her reflections on the state of the business industry from her time spent in Italy on sabbatical. 

This fall, I had an extraordinary opportunity. Thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation and their fellowship program for “practitioners” at the Bellagio Center on Lake Como, Italy, I was given a gift of time in a beautiful place (check out the view from my terrace, pictured right). I spent a delicious month away from my day job managing and working with the remarkable team behind the Business and Society Program in New York. I had a chance to stay put, think, write, eat at regular meal times, nurture my espresso habit, and explore one of the most beautiful places on the planet. 

What did I think and write about? As planned, I delved into our program’s mission — aligning business with the long-term health of society — and our modus operandi of dialogue and structured working groups — with a core question as the organizing principle for reflection. After 15 years, and hundreds of conversations, dialogues and programs to build and sustain the courage and conviction of thousands of business academics and business leaders — what do we know to be true about how change takes place in the business sector?

The need for new leaders is apparent today in business and across sectors of our economy. With pesky shareholders, uncertain markets, and global competition to worry about, it’s easy for business executives to look to the other guy to take the first step on complex problems. Yet, from the work required to convert to a low-carbon economy to job creation, business is the key to unlocking innovation and investment that is critical to our long-term success. Real progress requires a blend of policy incentives in the public space where commerce and government meet up, and new business protocols to drive the change home. Both require business leaders willing to get their hands dirty. How will significant change take place?

One of the things that I spent more time thinking about is that real leadership doesn’t require speaking out. Game-changing work — in business as well as in other organizations — often happens behind the scenes.

For example, W. Edwards Deming created the platform for the quality movement that transformed manufacturing, beginning with a private dinner party of Japanese business executives. Business leaders in the 1940s worked closely with government to develop the Marshall Plan and to network thousands of other business owners to retool and absorb the troops when they returned home, avoiding a recession after the war. While I was in Bellagio with the Rockefeller Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet with a coalition of executives in the European North Atlantic working to change the market incentives for overfishing cod, to protect both the species and their livelihoods.
Over the next several months, I will get closer to finishing the draft manuscript — article or book — that will explore these examples of quiet business leadership, and more. I will look at the principles that guide our work, including a deep belief that short-term focus undermines the kind of leaders in the mainstream business sector that our country needs at important inflection points. The manuscript will also examine the importance of building pro-social protocols and decision rules into business performance if we are to leverage the most important asset we have: the extraordinary talent, problem-solving skills, and resources of global corporations.

I also thought a lot about the power of positive questions — a necessary ingredient to engage the natural optimism and innovative spirit that imbues business executives.

I was reminded of a few things while living at the Bellagio residence for artists, writers, and practitioners (pictured right). One was that routines are essential for productivity. For a few brief weeks, I was able to sustain habits of exercise and meditation, as well as deeply appreciate the beauty that surrounded me, without sacrificing social interactions, meals, or a good night’s sleep. I made a commitment to sustaining these habits once back home. It’s as hard as I thought it might be, but I remain committed. The most surprising gift at Bellagio was the company of strangers — my fellow Fellows who spanned remarkable talents and ideas at the forefront of the arts and sciences. I am a social being and their presence created a strong work culture, not a distraction.
The intersection where we at the Institute’s Business and Society Program engage requires two components to come together: an agreement on the urgency/importance of the problem, and a belief that there is something that can be done together that will move the ball. Dialogue, and the kinds of methodologies that we use at the Institute to clarify the question and the solution, will help determine the way forward. But without a belief in a positive and meaningful outcome, and without the right people in the room to collaborate, we are guilty of “admiring the problem,” or becoming a debating society, which has its place, but fails the test for Aspen Institute policy programs that commit to “thought leading to action.”
Ah, to have a time like this every year. Here’s to 2014 and the habits that will make this a productive year for us all.