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What Makes A Leader?

As president of the Northern Trust Securities, Inc., Shundrawn Thomas, ’99, is a manager. But his position doesn’t inherently make him a leader.

“My position on the organizational chart does not by itself make me a leader,” Thomas said March 9 at a Veritas Forum event sponsored by the student-led Christian Business Students Association and African American MBA Association.

“I don’t subscribe to the concept that ‘leaders are born,’” Thomas continued. “I believe that leadership potential resides within each one of us.”

The talk was entitled “Redefining Success, Rediscovering Significance.” In the decade since he graduated form Chicago Booth, Thomas moved from being a former vice president at Goldman Sachs to a vice president position at Northern Trust before being promoted into his current position. He was named to Crains Chicago Business’ 40 under 40 list in 2007 and has published three faith-based books.

Characteristics Count
In order to be a leader, individuals must intentionally cultivate their leadership potential, Thomas said.
This includes fostering the following leadership characteristics:

“If you effectively articulate your mission, it’s clear to you and those around you what you are seeking to accomplish,” Thomas said. An organization’s mission should always be explicit and is made better with collaboration.

“As a leader, it is helpful to share my values with those around me. When others know my values, they understand how to respond to me. They understand what drives my decisions. While values are deeply personal, they are not necessarily deeply private.”

“People want to hear your authentic voice,” Thomas said. “If you are not authentic, they will not follow you.”

But while character is important, the ability to mold that character is paramount as well, Thomas said, drawing a parallel to marriage. “Are you still married to the same person you married five years ago? You’re probably not. You wouldn’t still be married. A successful marriage requires personal growth and development.

“This thought in your head that you can’t be anything different that what you were — if that is the position you take, you will not be effective as a leader.”

“You will encounter resistance,” Thomas said. “Also, you will encounter failures or setbacks. When things are tough, that’s when people look to those who lead with conviction.”

Choosing a Leadership Style
Effective leaders learn to exercise different leadership styles: visionary, coach, collaborator, politic, pacesetter, and commander. A good leader will match his current style to his group and environment. Most of the time, for example, Thomas said he is a visionary and coach, helping others see the big picture and recognize their potential. “Don’t handle all the decisions. You have to give people confidence to test the boundaries of what they can and cannot do.”

But, in times of crises, the commander steps in: “Sometimes during a crisis, the people around you shut down. As a leader, you have to step in and take hold of the decision rights. However, if you use the ‘command’ style of leadership when it is unnecessary, it’s a terrible form of leadership. On a day-to-day level, if I am commanding people who are competent at their jobs, that’s a surefire way to get them to quit on me.”

—Patrick Ferrell