Developing Leaders for the Real World
Tony Brown came from the corporate world to become a Professor of the Practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy in 1993. After earning his MBA at Harvard, Tony worked at Covenant Insurance Company, eventually becoming CEO and Chairman. He then became Vice President of External Affairs at the University of Connecticut, and after that CEO of Credit Suisse First Boston’s equity business. In a career pivot, Tony came to Duke to teach. In 2002 he founded the Enterprising Leadership Initiative (ELI), a signature program in HLP, and he teaches courses on social entrepreneurship, leadership development, moral courage, and civic engagement. Tony’s approach centers on action-oriented learning that produces real results and challenges students to define their own moral fiber and values.
My career has been based on exercising organizational leadership in business, higher education, and community organizations. I believe that there is a difference between leadership and management. Management is the process of using authority, incentives, and systems to produce organizational results. Leadership is supplementing effective management processes with influential actions that enhance organizational results, often to the level of excellence, and without relying on authority. Effective management can produce good results, but excellence requires leadership. I like to use the metaphor of cake and frosting. Cake without frosting tastes good, but not great. Frosting without cake is too sweet. But cake with frosting tastes great, and a small amount of frosting can have disproportionate impact. Leadership is the frosting.
My leadership niche
My leadership model doesn’t fit every person or every situation, but it does fit me. My leadership niche is defined by four principles.
- Leadership: “Leadership is the process of effecting purposeful change through the collective efforts of others without primary reliance on authority or coercion.” This definition means that leadership is something much more powerful than the “leader” role or person—any group member can exercise leadership by acting as an agent of change and working with others (and “small wins” count). Leadership is the collective result of every group member’s activities and usually necessary to reach the group’s highest levels of excellence and success.
- Enterprising: Dictionary.com defines enterprising as “(1) Ready to undertake projects of importance or difficulty, or untried schemes; energetic in carrying out any undertaking and (2) Characterized by great imagination or initiative. Enterprising people have the ability to address complex, important issues by discerning and acting on specific opportunities that cause real results. These opportunities may be the result of creative ideas; more often than not, they are the results of good fieldwork and solid analysis.
- Small wins: Leadership does not have to be transformational and involve systemic change. Small successes are important. They enhance participants’ energy, they demonstrate success to others, and they accumulate over time to become significant.
- Strong-hearted: Michael Maccoby, the psychoanalysis and leadership author, contrasts qualities of the “head” and “heart.” Qualities of the head center on analytical thinking, logical decisions, and rational behavior. Qualities of the heart center on the combination of compassion and courage (the “heart of a lion”). Maccoby has written extensively about the problem that professional environments often reinforce qualities of the head; yet the development of qualities of the heart is essential to moral, effective leadership. These developmental priorities are especially important to undergraduate students.
- Giving: Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take, reinforces the mindset and behavior of giving (or creating benefits for others) to effective leadership. Giving is an act of leadership, and it also builds supportive communities and networks. This requires the calibration of giving with personal leadership goals. An unconditional commitment to giving without goals often results in self-sacrifice, with a result of burnout instead of leadership.
My notions of leadership and leadership development are products of my family and my young adult life experiences. My siblings would reinforce the notion that our family experience was unusual. We were raised in an environment with a high level of independence and a high level of efficacy, but without structure or achievement expectations. My mother reinforced the notion of “coloring outside the lines” and making my own rules. I was raised to believe that I could accomplish whatever I wanted, but without accountability for academic and co-curricular achievement. One consequence of this was poor academic performance in high school and college and another was a lack of interest in established systems and leadership positions in organizations. I was my own man, and I would define my own meaning of success.
When I graduated from Harvard Business School, I knew that a big corporation or a prestigious consulting firm was not the best fit for me. I intentionally chose an alternative path and joined the Covenant Insurance Company. A very small company, Covenant appealed to me primarily as a political engagement opportunity. Its president had been the gubernatorial nominee in Connecticut and was leading Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential nomination campaign in our state. A second factor was that the company was proud of its impact in the city of Hartford in comparison with its giant insurance company neighbors (The Travelers, Aetna, and others).
My life experiences during my 20s and 30s at Covenant and in Hartford exposed me to significant organizational leadership challenges and critically important social/economic problems. These experiences affected the way I viewed the challenges of creating effective institutional change, made me humble, and shaped my personal identity. I learned than “small could be beautiful” and that contributing personally to human development could be very meaningful.
For example, I apply a personal principle of under-promising and over-delivering to my life and to my teaching. I much prefer to frame my teaching as being formative instead of transformative. On the one hand, I believe that my teaching is important to my students’ education and development. I also recognize students who do not take my courses still leave Duke with an outstanding college experience. Keeping perspective is important.
The college experience affects students in many ways. Broad classifications of impact often include knowledge (academic and experiential), cognitive development (critical analysis skills), skills (coding, etc.), and the social and economic value of a college degree. There is one more classification – social/psychological development (personal identity, morality, efficacy, and agency).
In universities, social/psychological development is often an explicit priority in the student affairs division due to the importance of co-curricular experiences. I have the luxury of teaching academic courses in subjects where the study and application of evidence-based theories is very limited. The limitations of the science of leadership and social entrepreneurship allow me to focus my teaching on cognitive development and social/psychological develop instead of subject matter knowledge. I care that students clarify their identity and moral fiber. I care that they graduate with a greater sense of agency. I care they feel more confident about their ability to tackle a big issue and act upon it in a personally meaningful way.
The premise of my work is that clear problem definitions, implementation (successful or unsuccessful), and subsequent reflection are sources of real learning. I often refer to this as “get ready—go—get set.”
Given my leadership interests, and my notion of importance of frosting to cake, a class community is essential to a great class learning experience. As is the case in sports, the team has to come together and aspire for something greater. This class community orientation is not the norm at Duke. I say to students, “Can you think of two students in every class who really intrigued you? How many of those students will you see this semester?” Classes are where we have true diversity, and this is where, if everyone in the class is just taking care of themselves, you aren’t going to build the kind of community that results in the course being the best one students take at Duke.
My leadership classes my can be highly formative, because students learn how to apply core models in their everyday lives and they have a clearer sense of their potential to exercise leadership. For example, it can be powerful for students when their parents are getting divorced. They might feel they have no control. But can you define the problem so you can actually do something about it? Can you define outcomes? Can you define actions? And the answer is “Yeah, I can help my sibling, I can be supportive.” They never would have done that had they not gone through that process. The aspiration is to create a lifelong habit of seeing something that bothers you, breaking it down into a manageable chunk, and acting on it.
What do you care about? How do you make it better? How could you address these questions without an analytical process? The cognitive element and rigorous analysis are what make my courses academic.
I’m an action-oriented guy. My story is that I didn’t have a smooth path and I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I certainly didn’t sail through college. I have become kind of a scrappy guy …. always aiming high, always challenging others, and always aiming to serve. This defines my teaching.
Elements common to all of my courses include: rigorous analysis methods, real project results, deep dive personal analysis, and formative class community. Given my career experiences, I teach each new class as if I am leading a new organization.
Most students define course-based team project experiences as disappointing. But in my classes, students have to do something that they never would have been able to do by just divvying up the work and acting independently. They have to deliver real results, which usually requires an effective team experience.
Duke students are good at collecting experiences. They don’t get enough emphasis on creating accomplishments. Their work in my classes enhances their resume because they can talk about accomplishments.
My two signature courses are Enterprising Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship in Action. In the past five years, I have also taught Leadership and Moral Courage and Leadership and Civic Engagement. Each of my courses is tailored to a specific class design.
Enterprising Leadership is asking the question: how do you make something you care about happen? In your family, in your life, in your community, and in your work? How do you first discern what you care about, how do you take some big issue and get it down into something specific?
My first class in the spring of 1993 was magical. I often say that it was the most thrilling experience of my professional life. I remember being shocked that anyone would sign up for it.
In the first class I assigned a leadership map for the first time. Students were to write a 40 page paper where they defined and analyzed themselves as leaders—their moral code, their values, their worldview, their leadership qualities, their aspirations, and their implementation plan. I wanted my students to think deeply about leadership, and I thought that they would be more drawn to thinking about their own lives than studying the lives of famous leaders.
The idea of the leadership map was the result of a personal experience during my corporate life. I had made a commitment to myself to not waste precious cross-country flight time on my work, but instead to focus on family, community, and self. One time I was flying to California, and I spent five hours on the plane outlining a statement of my values, aspirations, and plans.
The leadership map has now become a rite of passage for my students, and many alumni save them. They frequently bring their maps with them when they attend city-based alumni meetings.
In this class, students also propose an enterprising idea and act on a team project intended to create a real benefit for their community client.
Student-benefit proposals are very specific. They take a big issue, and break it down into something smaller. Here’s an example: “I care a lot about excessive drinking on campus, and I am especially concerned about a blackout framed as an act of heroism. Here are the two things I’m going to do in my fraternity about that issue.”
Social Entrepreneurship in Action is about starting social initiatives.
Students in this class have launched any highly successful social mission initiatives in Durham and at Duke over the years. These include Student U, C2C, SmallTown Records, The Girls Club, Common Ground, and the Durham Giving Project.
In 2000, I had taught the Social Entrepreneurship in Action course maybe once, and it was a business-plan course. Three students, Jared Weinstein, Adam Grossman and Bryan McGuiness, said “we’d like to do something real.” Their project was to give every Little League kid in East Durham a glove. And then they got them uniforms. They ended up raising $500,000 in financial and in-kind gifts, enough to renovate two baseball parks.
The Enterprising Leadership Initiative (ELI)
When Alma Blount became director of the Hart Leadership Program, she provided me with the opportunity to carve out my own niche. So I started expanding the focus of my work to include increased emphasis on student project implementation and continued personal development opportunities following the end of the class. We later broadened ELI’s scope to include former students who are now alumni.
ELI developed for two primary reasons. First, the nature of the projects initiated in my social entrepreneurship class required multiyear post-class support to be launched, sustained, and scaled. Our model was to move from a promising idea to a credible idea to a compelling idea to pilot test to launch to sustainability to scaling. Given that most of the students in this class were sophomores, they would have two years to create something that could benefit others significantly.
ELI included an incubator, project grants, summer internships, and for several years, postgraduate fellowships.
I had always maintained an active relationship with my alumni via newsletters, city visits, and staying in touch informally. In 2015, I realized that I was spending 96% of my time teaching 100 new students each year and 4% of my time contributing to the lives of my more than 2000 alumni. At that time, I decided to reduce my teaching time and spent 50% of my time teaching 50 new students each year and 50% of my time on alumni leadership development programs. For ELI, this meant a mindset change from alumni relations with alumni leadership development.
After three years of successfully designing and pilot testing various alumni leadership development programs, my alumni initiative was adopted by and transferred to the Sanford School of Public Policy in 2017.
“Do Better, Be Better”
In my alumni work, we talk about “Do Better, Be Better,” and embedded in being better is a concept of strong-hearted leadership—the kind of leadership that is not only moral-driven, but also compassionate and courageous.
Everything I do in my career and my life revolves around asking “What does it mean for us to be 25% better, 50% better? Where do we start? What can we do now?” I’m not a good care taker. I can tell you what I aspired to change and where it worked (or didn’t) for almost every business, nonprofit, or educational organization that I have been involved with during my career.
It’s continuous improvement. I’ve taught the Enterprising Leadership course 25 times. I re-do the syllabus all the time. How could the course be 20 percent better than it was last year? How could I be better?
At Covenant, I took a lot of risks and made a bunch of stupid decisions (and some good ones). But we had a culture of being strong-hearted.
The Bright Ideas Program is a small example. In the 1970’s, insurance companies had suggestion plans. You would write a little note, and three to four weeks later a committee would give you $10. I reframed the model from suggestions to bright ideas. I said the company needed everyone’s best ideas now. Instead of waiting weeks, we will respond to all ideas within 24 hours. The answers might be yes, no, or we may need a little more time, but we will reply quickly because everyone’s ideas are important to an innovative culture.
I had high aspirations, but through a combination of the globalization of the insurance industry, unprofitable markets and a fair share of management failures, the company didn’t perform to my aspirations. So I created an ESOP to give a third of the stock to the employees and then I sold the company. The ESOP transaction raised interesting ethical questions. So I spend a lot of my teaching time on discerning ethical dimensions to decisions, because I paid a lot of attention to that in the corporate world.
My college record for the first three years was dismal. I matriculated to Duke in 1960, but I was not ready for college work. (But I was ready for college social.) After doing poorly at Duke academically and then sustaining a sports injury, I dropped out my sophomore year and transferred to Southern Connecticut State College. I subsequently transferred to the University of Connecticut and dropped out again (due to poor grades and the death of my Mother).
Then two things happened in the fall of 1963 that changed my life.
First, a political science professor saw something in me. Max Thatcher put me in an honors course that I had no business being in. I remember that all of a sudden the subject matter was kind of interesting. All of a sudden, a light bulb turned on and I became keenly interested in learning. By the end of the semester, students approached me for tutoring.
Second, I started dating Teddie the same semester that Max Thatcher approached me about the honors class. Teddie and I knew quickly that we were meant to be with each other. I became very purposeful about my academics and my life.
Evidence of this is the fact that I took 21 courses in 18 months in order to graduate, I secured an actuarial analyst position at The Travelers (the first person ever hired for the program who was not a mathematics major), and I was subsequently admitted to Harvard Business School. Given my mixed college record and my degree from the University of Connecticut, I remember that I was socially and intellectually intimidated when I entered HBS. My high level performance in my first semester was a huge source of confidence for me.
Mentors, Mentoring, and Mentorship
I maintain an active alumni network—over 2,000 strong — that network of former students contributes to my current classes. I connect students with alumni for help with projects, and started a program called “36 hours at Duke,” which brings alumni back to Duke to workshop ideas with students for 36 hours.
Mentorship is a two-way street, a collective effort. After one 36 hours at Duke weekend I was talking to people in San Francisco and I said, “You know it’s great because the alumni can share their wisdom and mentor the college kids, and Duke students can inspire and energize the alumni.” Brian Thompson, who was in my first class at Duke and had attended 36 Hours, was in the room, and he said, “Don’t underestimate and shortchange how much I learned from my Duke student.
I can identify four mentors in my life: Bill Cook, Andy Souerwine, Gerry McKenzie and Dave Ivory.
Bill, a peer mentor, was all about being the best you could be. If you saw us in a First Boston meeting, you’d think we hated each other. He and I were both was strong and combative. But it was about striving for excellence in an honest and authentic manner. More than anyone else in my professional life, Bill influenced the development of my striving for excellence and authenticity.
Gerry, a consultant who also becames my own leadership coach, taught me how to navigate organizations and manage people.
Andy was all about values — he ran the management program at UConn — but he was also a career coach, and he taught me about staying true to yourself.
Dave, a professor at UConn, knew very little about business, but he was a highly principled person. We would always discuss what it meant to take the high road. What does it mean to take the high road if you have to fire or lay off a staff member?
Those four relationships were very important to me. In some ways, I embody a tiny bit of each of them. I strive to carry on their work: taking the high road, valuing excellence, authenticity, staying true to my values, and being skillful in my relationships.
My relationships with all my mentors is a key basis for “Do Better, Be Better” –striving for excellence in an authentic way and hopefully becoming a better person as a result.
I often ask students and alumni about people who have changed their lives. Who is the Bill Cook in your life? Who might become the Bill Cook in your life? What can you do to make this happen? Who will you write about when you are my age?
These deep, mutually formative relationships can’t be created by mentoring systems than assign buddies. Students must take the lead in developing these relationships over time. Or they find their own Bill Cook and nurture a personal relationship. They have to own their own education and development.
Teddie has had a huge influence on my life. She is my life journey partner. She is my rock of Gibraltar. Our love and relationship is based on a unique mix of deeply shared common values and very different family experiences and personal traits.
Teddie worked with me as the ELI program manager for a number of years before she retired in 2007. This meant that she got to know all of my students and vice versa. I always thought that it was terrific that my students, who are so important to my life, had the opportunity to get to know Teddie. Of course, when my students and my alumni contact me, they always, always inquire about Teddie’s well-being and send her their regards.
What’s a core value in your teaching and mentoring?
In my alumni work now, we are talking about “do better, be better,” and embedded in being better is a concept of strong-hearted leadership—the kind of leadership that is not only moral-driven, but it is compassionate and courageous. It’s strong-hearted leadership as compared to soft-hearted leadership, or hard-hearted leadership.READ MORE