Tom Leppert, currently the CEO of Kaplan, Inc., and formerly the mayor of Dallas, spoke at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on Wednesday, September 25, 2014. Leppert has a long history of leadership in both the private and public spheres. In the private sphere, he has led companies in several industries, notably construction. His nine years as the head of the Turner Corporation, the nation’s largest general construction company, is considered enormously successful. In the public sphere, he was mayor of Dallas from 2007 to 2011, and was a White House Fellows during the 1980s.
The focus of Leppert’s talk was on the four lessons on leadership he has learned throughout his career. The first of these was to never feel comfortable. He noted that during his career, he would frequently feel overwhelmed, but never intimidated. Only in this environment can people learn a new perspective – a key for leadership. The second was to be leery of straight lines. Following his tenure at McKinsey, a major accounting firm, he became a White House Fellow. Though diverging from a typical career path for his industry, he gained two important things: a new environment to explore and a much broadened base of experience which made him more valuable when he returned to McKinsey. Again, the key was a different perspective. The third was to have a moral compass – know what is worth compromising on and what principles are sacrosanct. At various times in his career, Leppert faced moral trials that tested this sense. He always chose to do do the right thing, though it was often harder in the short-term than some alternatives. The last lesson was to get involved in the community. Besides being a good citizen, this also leads to an increased awareness of the way the rest of the world lives.
To Leppert, the key to leadership is in gaining new perspectives. Leaders do not listen to themselves, but to those around them. Only then will they gain enough information to make the correct decision. During the question and answer session, he joked that he lowered the average IQ of meetings with his staff. By surrounding himself with more intelligent people, he is better able to run any organization he is in, private or public. In closing, he urged the audience to find something they are passionate about and pursue it as much as possible.
Mr. Leppert’s talk was sponsored by the Kravis Leadership Institute, the Robert Day School, and the Rose Institute of State and Local Government.