What does it take to be a leader? This is a question that confounds many people across different industries. But perhaps the more important question is: what does it take to sustain leadership? This week, businesspeople from around the world converged on Radio City Music Hall in New York City for the World Business Forum to explore that and other issues. Some of the prominent speakers included: Al Gore, author Jim Collins (Good to Great), former P&G chairman A.G. Lafley , former GE CEO Jack Welch, and tech analyst and Altimeter Group founder Charlene Li.
Though I missed Lafley's address because I was sick (thanks to news editor Lindsey Siegriest for covering it so well) I was lucky enough to attend a luncheon panel discussion on Tuesday with some of the brightest minds in business and, as it turns out, communications. Hosted by MWW Group and moderated by CEO Michael Kempner, the discussion addressed the topic of Sustainable Leadership and featured Jim Quigley, CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd; Arkadi Kuhlmann, chairman and president of ING Direct; and former White House adviser David Gergen.
I was familiar with Arkadi Kuhlmann, as he has spoken to us many times before about the company's marketing and communications strategy and even his own use of social media (full disclosure: I am an ING customer as well). But I have to admit, I walked into the event wondering if this panel was going to be a bunch of intelligent men pontificating on the subject, instead of offering me, a reporter for a PR magazine, the insight on the value that PR can bring to an organization. I could not have been more wrong. Some PR people talk of CEOs that don't “get it” when it comes to communications, about senior leadership not understanding the value of reputation, transparency, and engagement, but both Kuhlmann and Quigley absolutely blew me away with their understanding and appreciation for things that we all know PR is directly responsible for: reputation management, leadership communications, and earning consumer trust.
And then there was David Gergen, who now is on my wish list for PRWeek guest columnist or Q&A participant. His opening statement was a story about a Harvard graduate who had enlisted in the Marines shortly after 9/11 because he felt a calling to do something for his country. After several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he returned to the US for a “normal” life. Yet, when he learned that Gen. David Petraeus, who had overseen US forces in Iraq, had been named in charge of US operations in Afghanistan, he decided to return to active duty and join the Marines in Afghanistan because he respected Petraeus' leadership that much. That, he said, is an example of true sustainable leadership. Indeed.
As CEOs go, Kuhlmann and Quigley seem like just genuinely great ones to work for as PR professionals because of their aforementioned appreciation for the value that PR can bring to an organization. I didn't get to ask a question, but what I wanted to ask was, “Given the importance you place on these things that PR handles best, where do you see PR's role in your organization?” It's something I had the opportunity to ask Cathy McFarlane, head of corporate relations for ING Direct on my way out. I said, “Your CEO seems like a PR person's dream.” Her response, “It is.” In fact, she said that it's something that is helped by the fact that she reports directly to Kuhlmann, a structure that is not that common, even in the companies that value PR the most. The takeaway lesson from this session was that sustainable leadership is a challenge to uphold, but something that PR is best equipped to help achieve.