The chance of a lifetime

Aug 12, 2005

Bryan Trilli, who graduated in June, interviewed several alumni who are leaders in their fields for a project in Dr. Ben Redekop's LS 489 Senior Seminar: Leadership, Ethics and Contemporary Issues course during the fall 2004 term.

"It's not what you know it's who you know," was the cliche echoing through my mind as an 18-year-old high school graduate with multiple job offers lined up. My parents had never heard of Kettering prior to my budding interest, which stemmed from a few comments by a high school Spanish teacher. Once we visited campus and learned of Kettering's heritage, my parents quickly encouraged me to understand the value of networking and that Kettering would be unique in providing that opportunity to me. If you choose Kettering to obtain a first-rate engineering education, you've made a wise decision, but if you entered the school with the understanding that Kettering's greatest asset is not found in books, but in its alumni and their accessibility, than a true goldmine of knowledge lies at your finger tips.

By pure chance Professor Bell instructed me in Organic Chemistry during my freshmen I term and I learned of his legendary connections to business executives. He was my link to the eight people I interviewed to learn of both leadership and ethics for my Senior Seminar class taught by Professor Benjamin Redekop. The goal was to understand the common traits of the successful Kettering/GMI alumni leaders I had the opportunity to meet over the past four years, and to understand what ethical underpinnings, if any, are required of these leaders. The opportunity to learn from these individuals presented itself as the most valuable opportunity of my fledgling career.

The eight individuals interviewed oversee hundreds of thousands of jobs and account for billions of dollars in revenues around the world. They were presented with several questions on business ethics and leadership and their responses were compared with additional research to provide a more complete understanding of Kettering/GMI alumni. Their answers to questions about leadership were extremely varied; however, they all indicated that a foundation based upon high ethical and moral standards is essential to their success. Defining Leadership

Bob Reiss '60, an entrepreneur regarded as the world's first bio-medical engineer, provided a definition of leadership that will be used in this essay to define leadership. He said that leadership "is the ability to have a meaningful vision of what the future could be and concurrently being able to define a pathway to the fulfillment of that vision." Bruce Coventry '75, president of the Global Engine Management Alliance (GEMA), adds that a leader should provide a very clear and vivid image for what an organization can accomplish and be a person everyone can rally around and understand. He pointed out that this is one of the most elusive qualities found in corporate executives today and therefore is being adamantly pursued and even tested for when looking for people to fill executive positions. Baltasar Gracian, a 17th century Jesuit monk and philosopher writing in Gracian's Manual in 1653, describes the traits of a "Natural Leader" in slightly different terms. Gracian points out that leadership is a "secret force" achieved through an "inborn power of rule." He further writes that "By the esteem that they inspire, they hold the hearts and minds of those around them. Such people are born to be the prime movers of the state." Kettering, unlike any other school in the world, attracts and produces these "Natural Leaders."

Gracian may attribute these unique traits of character to an "inborn power." However, it becomes apparent that although leaders may possess certain natural abilities, they tend to follow a common formula.

Traits of a Leader

When asked about the most vital traits of leaders, Bruce Coventry set the stage for learning by pointing out that it is first important to understand that leadership is a very elusive subject because of changing business climates, individual styles, and a leader's need to always learn from those above and below him. With that in mind, it is of little surprise that no two people provided the same answer. Steve Dickerson, a vice president at Metaldyne, believes proper motivation, character, integrity, high ethical standards, hard work, respect toward individuals, facilitation of communication and commanding respect are all traits found in good leaders. Reiss indicates that, "Some very important traits for a person who aspires to a leadership position include humility, trustworthiness, honesty, constancy, discernment, dependability, problem identification and problem solving skills and hard work." For Coventry, these traits can all be summed up in a person who can provide a very clear and vivid image for what the organization is trying to accomplish, and then articulate that image well enough to have people follow him or her with enthusiasm. Don Barefoot '77, president of Covenant Partners Consultancy, is also a proponent of visionary leadership and believes leadership involves promoting vision for an enterprise built around sound core values that promote trust as well as a spirit of competition while enabling everyone to take full advantage of the resources the Lord has provided for each person. Barefoot strongly encourages servant leadership by serving others by modeling what you promote and then equipping them to succeed.

Dr. John led Kettering University with a definite vision and believes firmly that a leader needs confidence. People are resistant to change and a leader will be met with adversity, detractors, and other negative influences. Therefore, the leader must always have a plan and enough confidence in himself and the plan to follow it through to the end. Reiss tempers this need for confidence by suggesting that a big ego, "or a sense of over-inflated self importance, are the most common defects in people who never make good and effective leaders because nobody wants to follow them."

Interestingly, Thomas Stanley in "The Millionaire Mind" indicates millionaires in general believe that "having strong leadership qualities" is the seventh most important factor for economic success. Their top five factors, in order of importance, are:

  1. being honest with all people;
  2. being well disciplined;
  3. getting along with people;
  4. having a supportive spouse; and
  5. working harder than most people.

Stanley also points out that there is no significant statistical correlation between SAT scores, class rank in college, or GPA in college and net worth for individuals between 45 and 64 years of age. Amazingly, nearly all of the traits and characteristics used to define leadership can be learned and not one respondent claimed superior intellect or an excellent college education as a necessary requirement for leadership. This is not to imply that it is not beneficial, but it appears to be of much less significance. Two of the greatest businessmen in present day corporate America-Michael Dell and Bill Gates-are both college drop-outs.

Leaders certainly carry out and express their leadership styles through their own personalities and strengths. However, several factors permeate all of their definitions. These traits are high ethical standards, hard work, consistency, superb communication skills, the ability to define a goal, the skills to confidently inspire others to achieve a common goal and the ability to command respect. For the aspiring leaders among us, Larry Burns '75, who leads the GM Research and Development Center, and oversees GM's global research programs, advises us to do our best to surround ourselves with excellent leaders from whom we can learn. This is particularly true when one begins a career-it is extremely important to put himself in a position to learn from great leaders. More importantly, it has to be a life-long process where you are continually learning from those all around you.

Written by Bryan Trilli '05

Note: This story first appeared in the June 2005 issue of "The Kettering Perspective."