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What makes a good leader?

Augustana Magazine Summer 2022

For the Leadership issue of Augustana Magazine Summer 2022, we asked several alumni to define what makes a good leader.

Lee Seelander

Lee Selander ’72, retired executive vice president, The Northern Trust Company, Chicago

Great leaders are “servant leaders.” The true organizational structure is exactly the inverse of the physical organizational chart. It is an upside-down pyramid with the leader at the bottom. He/she serves the needs of “all” constituents in achieving the mission. A good leader does that by listening more than talking and being humble and respectful in demeanor. 

The very best leaders I have observed are clear and succinct communicators, embrace a true concern for the well-being of those served, inspire, motivate and thereby become “trusted” leaders. They hire smart, intelligent employees and let them do the job and grow — hiring someone for whom they would work. 

Finally, they understand the financial dynamics of the organization as even not-for-profits can’t survive without funding, and lastly they “shine by reflected light.” They hold up achievements and give credit to those who contributed to the shared success. 

Michelle King

Michelle King ’93 Mayer, federal executive, Baltimore

Four core competencies make a good leader: being decisive, a good communicator, resilient and authentic. 

• They must make decisions. Not deciding is a decision. Indecisiveness creates swirl in an organization, is inefficient and negatively impacts employee morale. 

• They must know their audience and be able to deliver a clear, crisp message yet be able to explain technical details as needed. They must also be a good listener. Many people are good at the making the noise side of communication (talking), yet struggle with listening. A good leader must listen, which involves paying acute attention not only to what is being said but also to how the message is being delivered. 

• Few things happen as planned. They should always be prepared yet able to pivot on a moment’s notice and remain calm and confident. 

• They need to be themselves. They need to truly know themselves and let others know them too. In turn, they will gain the trust of those working with and for them. 

aaron wetzel

Aaron Wetzel ‘90, vice president, Small Ag and Turf Production Systems, John Deere, Moline, Ill. 

What I believe makes a good leader and elements that probably define my own leadership style: 

Communication – having the ability to clearly communicate a vision and direction for the organization or team, establish priorities and what is important. 

Innovation – having a strategic vision that supports thinking outside of the box and the ability to look around the corners of opportunities to serve customers. 

Empathy – demonstrating a genuine interest in team members’ lives, their challenges and obstacles, and understand what they are going through. Being able to walk in their shoes and relate on a regular basis and provide needed support. This is especially important in today’s work environment. 

Additionally, I believe that all of these qualities, and the leader that I am today, are a direct result of my liberal arts experiences at Augustana College.

darrin good

Dr. Darrin Good ’87, president, Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln, Neb.

The words that guide my leadership style are positivity, transparency and personal connections. I’ll begin with the importance of personally knowing others in the community. I continue to work hard at getting to know the people in our community — faculty and staff, as well as students and alumni. I believe there is great value in remembering people’s names, what they do on our campus and something else about each one — hometown, hobbies, family, etc.

If we each feel more of a personal connection to each other, there’s a greater opportunity for shared vision on where we are going as an organization and the importance of each person’s role.

Communicating with transparency and honesty is also incredibly important to build and maintain trust as a leader. Whether we are in difficult times or we have opportunities for growth and celebration, providing clear and honest messaging is invaluable.

Finally, even in difficult times as we’ve had the last couple years during the pandemic, a leader must convey hope, enthusiasm and contagious optimism because the future is bright as we live out our student-centered mission.

robert mitchum

Robert Mitchum ’75, retired president and CEO, Network Services Company, Schaumburg, Ill.

Twenty years ago, I read “Good to Great” by Jim Collins — still the best “business book” that I have ever read. Collins analyzed about a dozen companies. that were widely acknowledged as “great companies.”

The one consistent catalyst among all the companies Collins analyzed was that each had a great leader with the following characteristics:

• They are ambitious, but first and foremost ambitious for the company, not themselves.

• They set up their successors for even greater success in the next generation.

• They display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated.

• They are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results — no matter how big or hard the decisions.

• They “look out the window” to attribute success to factors other than themselves; they “look in the mirror” when things go poorly.

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