Taking the Leadership Challenge

10298207836_f0fc406b01_c“It is during times of crisis that leadership becomes a deal-breaker,” said Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express, during a Wharton Leadership Lecture this month. Leading through crises was a theme in Chenault’s talk titled, “Leadership in Challenging Times.”

Many Americans—particularly New Yorkers—would cite Sept. 11, 2001, as the major historical occurrence of this century. AmEx is no different. With its location directly across the street from the towers, on that day, AmEx lost 11 employees. But amid the horror, there was kindness. Chenault recalled how AmEx employees became personally accountable during 9/11—waiving fees and truly listening to consumers’ needs—employees did what they could to help people without asking for permission from their supervisors. They remained true to AmEx’s dedication to service. They became leaders.

“I don’t know everything about leadership, but I have a passion, and I think everyone needs to take on those responsibilities,” he told the Wharton audience.

Unfortunately, 9/11 marked just the beginning of the crisis. The aftermath included an economic downturn as leisure and travel spending plummeted. Having only become CEO in April of that year, Chenault was already forced to make a crucial decision: He laid off 10,000 employees.

According to Chenault, leaders must do three things in tough times: stay visible, communicate and remain composed. It is during hard times that the strongest shine because “it’s easy to lead during good times.”

Chenault cited Nelson Mandela as a leader he admired, as “it is difficult to think of someone else, in modern times, who went through the hardships Nelson Mandela did,” he said.

Crises show who the true leaders are, but at all times a leader must remain consistent and look to the future. This can be difficult, especially during the good times. Chenault remembered when AmEx was doing extremely well, when the Internet started to spread. Other company leaders were content to simply carry on, but Chenault looked—and continues to look—ahead.

Since 1850, AmEx has been through its share of crises. It has undergone innovation and reinvention, particularly as it started out as an express mail company—hardly representative of the brand today. Despite this transformation, AmEx has remained consistent throughout. It has retained its core values which over the years have given it direction in how to change while remaining “a brand that remains relevant in 2013.”

Chenault’s talk reassured me about the business world and its humanity. Reading the news and watching current events, it is easy to assume that the fierce and selfish rather than the compassionate get ahead in society. It is also easy to think of crises as completely undesirable and 100 percent negative, but knowing that they can sometimes bring out the best in people and allow leaders to emerge is inspiring.

Listening to his experiences has forced me to look into my own life and respond to some of the questions Chenault raised such as, “Who listens to you?” and, “Who do you look up to and why?” Chenault’s session has motivated me to be more of a leader in my everyday activities and to truly define my values and passions. Leadership does not just come from the title after your name; it’s asked of everyday people every day.

The Chenault Leadership Lecture was co-sponsored by the Michael L. Tarnopol Dean’s Lecture Series.

Editor’s note: For additional leadership wisdom, read the 2005 Knowledge@Wharton article on Kenneth Chenault. View additional photos taken at the 2013 Leadership Lecture at the Wharton Flickr channel.

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