Leading in Today’s Tumultuous Times

John Luke Jr., WG’79, gives a keynote address at the Wharton Leadership Conference.

In today’s world, business leaders do not need to search hard to find trouble. In many cases, it finds them.

“Leading in a world of conflict” was the apropos theme of the Wharton Leadership Conference, and one of the key speakers at the event was John Luke Jr., WG’79, chairman and CEO of MeadWestvaco Corp. (MWV), a “complete leader” who knows how to lead through conflict, according to Stewart Friedman, Wharton’s Practice Professor of Management and director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project.

According to Luke, all good leaders deal with turbulence.

“My primary belief is that leadership and conflict are fundamentally inseparable,” he said.

In two decades at the helm of the Richmond, VA-based international packaging company, Luke has also learned to confront reality.  Reality isn’t just what happens within the four walls of an organization but also the events in the wider world that buttress it. The leader’s goal should be to understand and address that reality, Luke said, to think strategically with the long term in mind, but act tactically for the short term. He then has to get his team on board, and engage the overall organization. How?

“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” Luke said, until your organization has a “vision and one common goal.”

The best leaders also remain vigilant about the next bout of turbulence over the horizon. They have a “healthy sense of paranoia,” Luke said.

We are in want of these leaders, as Luke sees it—in both business and government. Optimally, public-sector and private-sector leaders ought to work together with a unified vision.

On their own, according to Luke, private-sector leaders should work toward repairing the credibility gap opened by the irresponsible, selfish and at times criminal activities of business leaders in recent memory. Leaders should get involved in public policy issues on the local, state and federal level. And, at their firms, they should demonstrate a holistic long-term view, with concerns greater than the next quarterly numbers.

The Wharton Leadership Conference took place on June 20 on Wharton’s Philadelphia campus.

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