Becoming a Leader in a Changing World

By Patricio Torres-Palacio, Ph.D.–

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other” (John F. Kennedy)

There are so many things that have been said about leadership.  How many times has the question been asked “is a leader made or born?” I believe that both cases are possible.

Perception of Leadership

Times and environments affect leadership or, better said, the perception of leadership.  In more than one occasion, people have wondered whether Abraham Lincoln, one of the most outstanding American leaders, would have had the same effectiveness and success these days as he had during the years of the Civil War.  One thing seems undeniable:  these days the image projected by technology (i.e. TV, Internet, and media) is as important as riding a horse could have been for a leader in the times of Alexander the Great.   It has been said that Republican candidate Richard Nixon barely lost the presidency against Democrat candidate John F. Kennedy just because of personal looks. A pale, sweaty image of Nixon contrasted with a fresh-looking face of Kennedy, which was the result, in a great deal, of a good makeup.  Let’s imagine the pale and thin face of Abraham Lincoln with a nice silk suit and a colorful tie (like the ones used today).  Would he project the “face you can trust” image and be a successful leader as he was with his top hat and black outfit during the Civil War?

 

Beyond a person’s looks, there are attributes that transcend time:

  • Being a proactive thinker
  • Having integrity and emotional intelligence
  • Demonstrating optimism to create “group-think”
  • Possessing capacity to listen to different points of view
  • Having the ability to learn on the job
  • Sharing credit for success and sharing blame for failure

 

All of these traits appear on the list of characteristics of effective leadership.  Lincoln had these characteristics.  Effective CEOs and politicians of today have them, too.

 

In and Out of The Classroom

In my System Project Management class one of my favorite chapters to teach is the one about leadership.  To carefully analyze leadership characteristics and to be trained to be a leader are no longer a great pluses in the professional profile of business students anymore…they are a must.  The always increasing challenges of a globalized world demand leadership skills to be competitive.

As a professor who is proud and happy to belong to the UST and the CSB families, I have always tried to offer my students the opportunity to benefit from different leaders:  from managers in other countries (Ecuador) who have successfully completed business projects, professors in Mexico participating in new exports of agricultural products to the US, aeronautical engineers preparing to become astronauts and conquer new horizons in open space, to our own leader, the President of UST, and the Mayor of the City of Houston.

President Ivany and Former Mayor Parker were very kind to accept my invitation to be guest speakers in my System Project Management class. They responded almost immediately, a fact that impressed me a lot, and I have appreciated.  My students enjoyed and learned a lot of useful advice by observing their different styles of leadership during their presentations. There are three things that these two leaders have in common:

  •  an ability to deal with people
  •  the talent to make an impact on people
  •  an aptitude for handling conflicts

It was certainly remarkable that President Ivany took time from his busy agenda to accept my invitation.  Equally, several students and fellow faculty asked me how I could accomplish a visit from the Mayor of Houston, especially when her final term as mayor was coming to an end, and therefore, gaining votes was not among her priorities.  Part of being a leader is having the capacity of “passing on” one’s knowledge and experience.  That explains why President Ivany and Mayor Parker were both eager to contribute to my class when I invited them.

 

From that point of view, are professors leaders?  Should professors develop leadership skills to be successful in front of a group of students?  I would definitely answer “yes.”  And most important of all:  leaders train other leaders.  Abraham Lincoln had very little formal education, but my admiration goes to the star “teacher” who influenced his life.

Patricio Torres-Palacio, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Operations Managment, Cameron School of Business

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