What makes a great leader?
James Love Barksdale offers living proof that all Silicon Valley entrepreneurs aren't cocky young upstarts faking their way to success. This consummate Southern gentleman, known for his folksy sayings and his Mississippi drawl, spent decades at the helm of established corporationsbefore becoming president and CEO of Netscape in 1995. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Barksdale acquired a strict work ethic from his banker father. One of six brothers, Barksdale vied regularly for the "Boy of the Week" award, a silver dollar his parents bestowed on the son who performed an outstanding good deed that week. Barksdale distinguished himself as a leader early, when his eighth grade class elected him president. After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1965, he married his college sweetheart, Sally, and went to work as a sales rep for IBM in Memphis. In 1980, he joined Federal Expressin Memphis, Tennessee, where he became chief information officer in 1979, and executive vice president and chief operating officer in 1983. Under his guidance, the company developed the first computer system capable oftracking millions of packages. In 1992, Barksdale left for a stint as president and COO of McCaw Cellular Communications, a wireless phone company which merged with AT&T Wireless in 1994. Barksdale served as CEO of AT&TWireless until 1995 when he joined Netscape in 1995. At FedEx, McCaw, and AT&T, Barksdale demonstrated a talent for using innovative technologies to change the way companies and consumers did business. Netscape, offering the chance to develop and market a radically new technology, seemed like a logical next step. At scrappy young Netscape, Barksdale shed his buttoned-down corporate image to win the devotion of the company's youthful staff, whom he motivated with silly cheers, homespun proverbs, and a strong sense of fair play. Herefused a salary during his first two years at Netscape because he felt the company wasn't performing up to par, but he walked away with $700 million when AOL bought the company in March 1999. Now head of his own investment firm, The Barksdale Group, he continues to affect the future of the Internet by funding e-commerce ventures. Meanwhile, he's also improving the prospects of the Deep South, through extensivephilanthropic efforts in his native state. In February 2000, Barksdale donated $100 million to fund literacy programs in Mississippi. Recently, Barksdale was named co-chairman of the Internet Policy Institute (IPI), a government organization designed to educate elected officials about Internet technology. He is one of more than a dozen distinguished authors who will draft briefing papers on Internet policy issues ranging from privacy to Internet taxation. In December 2000, the papers will be compiled into a book — Briefing the President: What the Next President of the United States Needs to Know About the Internet and its Transformative Impact on Society. Source: Biography
Question: Can leadership be taught?
Jim Barksdale: Well it absolutely can be taught. The best example of that is the military. The military trains thousands of leaders every year. The reasons is the consequence of poor leadership is death. In business, you don’t have the same consequence most often. But at Federal Express, we started a wonderful management course that we call “Leadership University”. And it still goes on today, and we train thousands of managers a year because we had to. We were growing so fast, and it was a core issue with a company like that, that we wanted to build a strong, well-managed company. And I think we’ve been very successful. It’s now recognized as one of the top one, two, or three customer service companies in the world in every poll, and it was done because of our leadership training.
Question: What makes a great leader?
Jim Barksdale: Well there are many tenets, but primarily a leader first and foremost has certain skills that they have to manage. But those are generally the management skills of planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling. You have to be able to do that. A leader is one who can effectively cooperate and communicate. They understand that the value at the end of the project is that everyone thinks they accomplished the project, not the leader. A leader is self-effacing and is not self-centered and doesn’t seek all the glory for themselves. But there are several characteristics of leaders that we all recognize. If I asked you to make a list of five or 10 things that effective leaders you’ve work for, or with, or seen in action around the world – be they business, or political, or religious leaders – what are the characteristics of those people? And there are such things as tact – to not offend but to be effective. There were such things as decisiveness, bearing, concern for others. There are several of those that are in a number of different curriculum; but they’re just some of the basic things that we as human beings admire in those who lead us. And if we’re able to pay attention to that and replicate that, we will be known as having the characteristics of leaders. And anyone who thinks about it and works at it can manage to do those things.
Question: Who are the great leaders?
Jim Barksdale: Well I tend to give companies more credit for being collections of lots of individuals. Too often in our media driven world we want to find the one person at the top and give them the credit. And generally my experience is that is certainly an important thing, but I think there are many . . . I have several people that I admire that I think are great leaders and have created great businesses. Fred Smith of Federal Express could be one of them. Warren Buffet and the work he’s done. Bill Gates is one of them. Steve Jobs has taught us a lot of things about creativity, and product design, and finding what people want and filling that need. Most of the people I probably look up to are people that were in my field of business. So I don’t pretend to know all the others; but I think Danny Cortese, the leader of the Mayo Clinic . . . I think he’s a great example of combining better medicine with effective business models of how to create affordable medical systems and healthcare for people throughout the country. I think in the political arena, I have people that I’ve admired for years. Colin Powell would be one of those people. I’m an admirer of a lot of different leaders. I was a great admirer of Martin Luther King. I think he changed our society.
Recorded on: 7/5/07
Barksdale, on starting "Leadership University."
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