by Jan Breiner Frazier, owner/managing member, PlanningPlus

The HISTORY Channel has created a series of excellent documentaries around the topic “The … that Built America,” including “The Men Who Built America” and “The Food That Built America.” The topics primarily center on the 1920’s and beyond with the genius of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford, as well as Hershey, Mars and the Kellogg brothers. And, in case you think only men made the list, Marjorie Post took over the business run by her father, C.W. Post, and further developed it to become General Foods.

While many of these industry leaders used any means possible (especially since most regulations were lax in those days), including implementing actions that would be considered highly unethical by today’s standards, their visions are still awe-inspiring. They were able to grasp and look beyond the current challenges facing them as well as those well into the future.

What can we learn from the stories about these leaders? And what do they tell us about leadership today?

Search “leadership” on Google or whatever search engine you use, and you will find a plethora of articles about what makes a good leader. But looking back at the 20’s, these are common characteristics.

  1. Vision. They saw beyond their immediate environment and envisioned how they could change the world on a large scale.
  2. High degree of risk taking. They were willing to bet all they had on their envisioned success, even if they stumbled and fell as they built their companies.
  3. Perseverance. Many of them saw doors slammed in their faces, endured the criticisms of families and friends, and constantly faced challenges with money. Yet they pursued their dreams even in the face of opposition and naysayers.
  4. Passion. While their heads took the logical pathways, their hearts stayed true to their course.
  5. Goal to improve lives. This may sound a little touchy feely, but Henry Ford wanted the middle class to afford cars, Madame C. J. Walker wanted hair products for a market no one else was addressing, and Kellogg’s corn flakes began as a health food to cure many ailments.
  6. Trust building. They were able to create a small army who believed in the vision and trusted their leader to make it come true, even through many stumbles and falls.

How can we channel that today? Is there still a need for vision?
In the nonprofit world, leaders today need all these attributes. When we engage clients in strategic planning, we encourage them to look beyond the future of just their organization and toward a vision for our city, state, region and even beyond. What do you want the world to be like for your population of stakeholders? How can you broaden that vision to include the lives of those outside your domain?Imagine. Then determine your piece of making that vision happen (what we call “mission”).

As for those other qualities, they really can’t be taught as they are innate at best. But once there is a dream — a vision, if you can build a team that can handle the risk, persevere, and have a worthy goal, you can usually encourage others to go along with you for the ride.

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