Letter from the Board Chair

What Makes a Good Leader?

By: Elaine D. Rosen, Chair, Board of Trustees

A host of positive traits grounded in character and integrity.

The Kresge Foundation 2018 Annual Report is about leadership — the subject I most love to witness, study, reflect upon and share.

In my view, leadership is everything.

As I contemplated the seeming audacity of extolling on a subject that has been covered by many held in high esteem, I uncovered that, at this stage of my life, I have an airtight case for offering sage advice. So allow me to share my thoughts for leaders of all kinds:

Good leaders care about people. They respect them, they invest in them, they rely on them. Communicating clearly, promptly and responsibly is another distinction. And good leaders attract and select great people. I once received memorable advice about selecting those great people: Before you bring someone into your precious organization, be certain you can spend a whole day together, because, hopefully, you will be together for years. Works every time.

Good leaders have a way of overcoming obstacles. They set a goal and create a plan to achieve it. They are realists and they are dreamers in just the right doses for the moment at hand.

Good leaders have the rare ability to grasp the big picture while focusing with great intensity on details. And they seem able to move effortlessly between the two. This latter trait can be summed up in one word — execution. Flawless execution is the rarefied air that leaders breathe.

Leadership is not an exclusive domain: Anyone can be a leader. Strong leadership traits find their way into every role. From how one treats others to how they go about their work and exercise thought leadership — these are traits that stand out for every one of us up and down the line.

But, there is one ultimate measure. Good leaders know that all of the progress made in this life will be determined by — and ultimately measured against — standards of character and integrity. This is another way of saying trust. Character and integrity are inherently nonscientific, nonquantifiable and subject entirely to society’s judgment. I know not one good leader who can’t be trusted.

I heard a powerful statement recently: The pace of change will never be this slow again. In my view, effective leadership is the only approach to possibly keep up with that acceleration.

My term as board chair will conclude in a few short years. While I have welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the foundation’s annual report over the past 13 years, the subject of leadership is an all-time favorite of mine. And I am compelled to say that there has never been a more important time to elevate it.

I know few people these days who aren’t worried about the state of things. Our country is more divided and angry than it has been in decades, preventing action on issues of consequence — immigration, education, climate change, health disparity, poverty, inequitable growth. But this did not happen overnight; nor did it happen since the 2016 election.

Plenty of finger-pointing and arguments abound, but we must focus our energies on solutions that combine addressing long-term root causes with immediate relief on the ground and in the field. I have confidence in our collective ability to do that, especially with Kresge and its philanthropic peers as catalysts, partners, initiators — in other words, leaders — involved in the work. This responsibility undeniably stems from the wealth that we steward, from our privilege to take the long view, and from the assemblage of very smart and compassionate people leading our country’s philanthropies (from my view, Kresge President and CEO Rip Rapson is one of them).

Good leadership encourages people to stretch their capacity — to make room for new ideas while staying true to their values, and to never stop trying. No ifs, ands or buts.

A Welcome Addition

Let me take this opportunity to welcome Drexel University President John Fry to our Board of Trustees. John is a well-known and highly regarded educator and leader who has demonstrated in Drexel’s hometown of Philadelphia much of what Kresge stands for and aspires to do in America’s cities. We are proud and lucky to welcome him as a trustee.