What does it take to be a leader?

Bradford Smith, President of the Foundation Center gave a riveting presentation in October 2015 for the Network Days Conference held in New York, NY. His talk was about being a leader and three traits one would need to be successful. Now, Mr. Smith did not give the usual list of characteristics – honesty, communicative, integrity, confidence, etc. Instead, he gave three powerful characteristics with visual and auditory examples. The three of Mr. Smith’s important powerful leadership characteristics are (drum roll please):

  • Vision
  • Energy
  • Improvisation

Vision is key as Mr. Smith said, because of the world in which we live. Technology is short term and we become reactive. Leaders need to have an idea of how to get to the future, a non-reactive process. A leader needs to spend time to find the path ahead.

tazA leader needs an enormous amount of energy to move toward a vision. Mr. Smith compared the amount of energy need to Taz, the animated cartoon character in Warner Bros.’ Loony Tunes. After playing a short cartoon clip, he reiterated that a significant amount of power is required to fulfill a vision and to keep at it when the wind is blown out of your sails.

The last characteristic Mr. Smith discussed was improvisation. He put it quite simply – “you have to improv to get where you want to go.” There is an art to fulfilling a vision and part of it is not knowing exactly all the pieces. A leader needs to be able to move forward in the moment without a prepared script. Mr. Smith compared improvisation with music. Musicians compose and even perform using improvisation. In our sector there are disruptions in funding, natural disasters, etc. and leaders need to be able to improv to get to your destination.


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