Lessons for Leaders, Lessons for All: Takeaways from the 18th Wharton Leadership Conference

July 21, 2014

Attendance of the Wharton Leadership Conference has been a perk, honor and privilege of being a Women’s World Banking staff member for a number of years, thanks to the generosity of our board member Michael Useem who is the Director of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management. The theme for year’s conference, the 18th in the series, was “Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain World” and across the variety of topics covered by the speakers, three themes emerged to answer the question of how to successfully lead (or we would argue, how to be successful in general) in a complex and uncertain world:

  1. Fit
  2. Accountability
  3. Heart


Kicking off the conference was author Ram Charan who gave us this lovely nugget of advice: “nothing overcomes the wrong person in the right job. Select the right people!” Indeed, one of the speakers’ entire job, Blackstone Operating Partner Sandy Ogg, was selecting the right management team to take over and improve the companies that Blackstone acquires. Charan, Ogg and Cleveland Indians’ general manager Mark Shapiro stressed the importance of hiring the right people. For Shapiro’s organization, the question for each member of the team—from players on the field to staff and management—that could help them determine fit is simply, “how will you make us better the day you get here?”

Both Ogg and Shapiro shared the very rigorous processes they undertake when recruiting and the specific traits that they look for in their teams. Guess which one featured prominently in both their lists?


Shapiro called accountability a ‘separator’ trait, one that distinguishes someone good from someone great. It’s an especially important trait for a leader because when the going gets rough, as Bill Parcells (of the New England Patriots) advised Shapiro during the first years of his management of the Indians, “nobody gives a d*mn,” meaning that it doesn’t how many excuses a leader can give, in the end, what matters is getting the job done. At the other end of the spectrum, the lack of accountability is, says Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times, the reason behind the leadership crisis in corporate America and its impact on society, citing the 2008 financial crisis and recent GM scandal regarding faulty ignition switches. Blackstone’s Ogg had version of accountability under his 5 E’s of successful leaders: “edge” with “ethics.” He says that first, one must be willing to make tough decisions in the company. This was echoed by MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga when he said, “make a difference by making a decision.” However, the leader must also exude trust through integrity and honesty, especially in the little things. Or as U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh III put it succinctly: “be credible.” But credibility extends beyond being reliable. At the end of the day, said General Welsh, good leaders care.


Women's World Banking Staff with Mike Useem at the Wharton Leadership Conference “Every employee has a story,” declared General Welsh after telling a touching anecdote about how his leadership team pulled every string imaginable on a weekend to help an Air Force mechanic get transferred to a base so he could take claim custody of his daughter. “They should know you care,” he added.

Having emotions does not mean you have to empathize or cry every time someone you manage is having a bad day. It means the ability to read your team’s emotions and act intelligently according to what you have seen and felt. One of the phrases that Sandy Salama, a Fellow at Women’s World Banking, liked best was uttered by Sigal Barsade, Professor of Management at the Wharton School: “we should recognize emotion as information, information which can actually help us predict the future.” Kind of a key skill in an uncertain world, don’t you think? This kind of emotional intelligence can and should  be developed, she says, but we should never let emotion overtake us. Perhaps it was President and CEO of Master Card Ajay Banga who put it best when asked how to lead in an uncertain world, he answered: “Be a leader with your heart and mind.”

The effect of care doesn’t just go from top to bottom—it also comes from the staff on the ground. According to Shapiro, the “right” person in a job, be it a team captain or the data entry clerk, finds meaning in the job, takes it personally and has pride in what she does. In a word, the right person cares. For Leadership and Diversity Specialist Sarah Buitoni, the central message of the various speakers was this: that effective leadership is all about people. The idea is that people make the enterprise, and the leader’s ability to harness the right people is what makes the enterprise successful, through any circumstance.  And this takes us right back to the beginning, where fit is essential if one is to live and lead in a complex and uncertain world.

Co-written by Sarah Buitoni and Gayle Gatchalian