Speaker Name: John A. Allison, IV
Speaker Title: Chairman and CEO
Speaker Company: BB&T Financial Corporation
BB&T Financial Corporation Website

John A. Allison, IVIt's an honor to be the first speaker in the newly endowed Harlan Boyles Distinguished CEO Lecture Series. Harlan Boyles has made a tremendous contribution to the State of North Carolina. If you read the newspapers, you might think all of our political leaders are incompetent. While we certainly have some incompetent leaders, we also have some exceptional political leaders and Harlan Boyles is one of those. Throughout the U.S. and throughout the world, North Carolina is highly regarded for its financial affairs. One of the major reasons for this is the way the State Treasurers office has been run under Harlan Boyles leadership. I've known Harlan for years and three things really stand out about him from my personal experience. First thing is he's fair, the second thing is that he and his team are very professional, and, finally and I think most important, is the extreme consistency of purpose that he has demonstrated through the good times and bad times in operating his function. Everybody in North Carolina owes a "thank you" to Harlan Boyles. Thank you, Harlan.

In the audience today there are a number of future leaders of this state. In fact, practically everybody here will be in a leadership role sometime in your life. You are far above average people or you wouldn't be where you are today. You have far above average ability to contribute if you choose to. In the world today, unfortunately, we are desperately short of good leaders. It is one of the greatest problems we face. I'd like to share with you some thoughts about what good leaders do.

Good leaders develop visions about what it would be like if things were better. Some of those visions are big; some of them are small but, most importantly, they're about being better. Good leaders develop visions of a better future and strategies to make those visions a reality, then they teach others how to make those strategies work. Good leaders understand that the organizing principle of human action is purpose; people act on and with purpose. Everybody wants to make a difference. Everybody wants to contribute. Everybody wants it to matter that they were here. Everybody wants to be important. In fact, everybody wants to make the world a better place in which to live. People are fundamentally, intrinsically motivated to do the right thing. The task of the good leader is to teach what the right thing is.

Good leaders also understand that while we are intrinsically motivated to make the world a better place to live, we also have another need. That need is to survive. Out of the need to survive sometimes we're afraid we're not going to survive. Out of that fear, we don't always do what we think is right or what we think would make the world a better place to live. One of the great challenges, personally, for organizations and for leaders of teams, is to find a harmony between our need to make the world a better place to live and our need to survive.

Good leaders understand that people absolutely can be and are motivated by fear. They also understand that motivating by fear is incredibly destructive. When people are afraid, they literally can't think and can't be depended on to do the right thing. Good leaders do all they can to drive out fear. They understand that when a manager manages with fear, it's because he is afraid. Fear is the enemy. Good leaders then tap into the intrinsic positive motivation that people have to make the world a better place to live and they do everything they can to drive out fear.

Good leaders also understand that the way we make the world a better place to live is through service of others. In business, we serve our customers. In a hospital, the staff serves the patients. In a university, the teachers and the administration serve the students. For that service to work long term, it must be mutually beneficial. Good leaders seek out and create as many win-win relationships as possible. They understand that any win-lose relationship and any lose-win relationship will inevitably become a lose-lose relationship. There are only two stable conditions--win-win and lose-lose. So good leaders avoid lose-lose relationships and create win-win relationships.

Good leaders understand that for their team to make the greatest contribution, the members of the team must feel good about being part of the team and, most importantly, they must be self-fulfilled in their work. I'd like to share with you five principles of self-fulfillment that are important for good leaders to practice and teach.

The first principle of self-fulfillment is trust. You cannot have a self-fulfilling relationship with any other human being unless that relationship is based on trust. You have to trust the people that you work for, the people you work with, and the people that work for you. You have to trust your teachers; and they will make mistakes. If you are going to be a leader, you will have to be trusted. Would you follow anybody you did not trust?

Trust is an interesting thing; trust exists in close harmony with the second principle of self-fulfillment and that is responsibility. All of us want to be trusted; we usually attribute our trustworthiness to other people and say you choose or didn't choose to trust me. In reality, we create our own trustworthiness. If we are 100 percent responsible, we will be 100 percent trusted. If we're 50 percent responsible, we will be 50 percent trusted, and if were 25 percent responsible, well be 25 percent trusted. So, responsibility is a positive attribute in the context that it creates our trustworthiness.

Responsibility is an interesting thing; it exists in three planes. The first plane is the fact that in any kind of organizational setting, there has to be a set of agreements. In business, it's usually a fairly formal job description, and at home it's a set of informal agreements about what we do and what our spouse does and what other members of our family do. To be self-fulfilled, it is absolutely necessary that we keep our agreements. There is an interesting thing about keeping agreements. You can fool me sometimes, probably fairly often, as to whether or not you kept your agreements, but you can never fool you. Keeping agreements is absolutely necessary for self-fulfillment, but it is not sufficient.

The second plane of responsibility is that every person in any organization, team, or family, is equally and totally responsible for the fulfillment of the mission or the ultimate purpose of the organization. It is easy to drop back to our job description and say, "That's not what I do here," when we know that what we ought to be doing is the right thing to fulfill the purpose. Bureaucracies result from people dropping back to their job description and not doing the right thing.

The third level of responsibility is the fact that each and every one of us is responsible for who we are and what we do. If you talk to unsuccessful people, you'll always get a story. Unsuccessful people will tell you that they had a "bad" mom or a "bad" dad, or "bad" teacher or "bad" circumstances, when in fact their mom, dad, teacher, and circumstances are essentially the same as for successful people. The reality is that everybody's mom and dad and every teacher has flaws and has made mistakes. However, every mom and every dad that I ever met is doing the best that they can do. The reality is that we are responsible for who we are and what we do. Nobody else is. When we understand that, we can make our optimal contribution and we can teach other people that same level of responsibility.

The third principle, which is unquestionably the most powerful one and the most difficult one to practice, is something called mutual supportiveness. Mutual supportiveness means rooting for the other person to make it. Most of us put great effort in us making it; sometimes it's very difficult for us to root for the other person to make it. Organizations often don't succeed because the people in them are rooting against each other. They're making themselves look relatively better by making the other person look relatively worse.

Unfortunately, our educational system does not do a very good job of teaching mutual supportiveness. One of the interesting dilemmas is the normal grading curve that most of you have experienced. The normal grading curve says that 20 percent of the students can have As, no more and no less. The impression is that there's a limited number of As in the universe. Instead of striving for a uniform and minimum level of knowledge, we tend to strive to be in the 20 percent that makes As. If we all happen to make As, the teacher raises the hurdle for the next test and we are frustrated. On the other hand, and far more likely, maybe not enough students make the hurdle so the standards are moved down--exactly what's happened to our total education system. The thinking is that I don't really care about what I learn. I care about making an A and, therefore, I'm in competition, not with reality and knowledge but with my fellow students, for the limited number of As.

We hire a number of college graduates every year to come work for BB&T and we gather together these management trainees and put them in a room and say, "Listen, these are the people you're going to be working with, we hope, for the next forty years. Help each other be successful. You're going to create this company together." Everybody hears that at one level, but they don't hear it down in their heart because what they hear down in their heart is, "Yeah, there's twenty people in this room and only x percent of us are going to get a raise, and only x percent of us are going to get a promotion, therefore, I'm really in competition with these people,"--interesting experience.

At BB&T twenty years ago when I joined the bank, nobody, including the CEO at that time, had the same opportunities that hundreds of people at BB&T have today. The reason for that is we changed the context and the breadth of our contribution. In reality, the ability to contribute is infinite; there is no limit. The choice is what you together can do to change the limits.

Good leaders understand that personal contribution and personal success are good. There's nothing wrong with that, but the personal contribution and personal success must be measured against reality, against doing good things. It's not about being faster than the other person. If you set the criteria to be faster than the other person, since you're already above average, you're going to keep bringing yourself down or you're going to look around and see that there's always somebody that is, or at least appears to be, faster, stronger, smarter, and nicer than you and you're going to be miserable.

Good leaders teach, preach, and demand mutual supportiveness. They understand that when were all in it together, we can optimize our contribution.

The fourth principle of self-fulfillment is learning. We're in a world where the amount of information generated in the last five years exceeds all the information created in human history. The unfortunate reality is that what we learned last year is probably changed and outdated. Now we have to act as if we know something; we can't act otherwise. But what we must do is accept that what we think we know has changed and the only way to be productive in that environment is to be a learner. Commit yourself to lifelong learning. Learning is an interesting thing. We learn in many ways--from teachers, from other people's examples, from books, etc. However, it seems like we learn the greatest lessons from our mistakes. At the same time we often don't learn many of our mistakes; instead we keep replicating them. In fact most of us have embedded in our personalities mistakes that we keep making over and over again. We learned when we were young that it was wrong to make mistakes. We learned that one way not to make a mistake is not to admit we made one.

Good leaders give people permission to make mistakes. They create a context around the mistakes, a context in which the mistakes must have a purpose consistent with the mission of the organization. The person making the mistake must learn from the mistake and must share what he or she has learned with others. In that context, mistake making is good because it permits us to learn to get better.

The fifth principle of self-fulfillment is telling the truth. We don't have any liars in this room; you can't make it this far being a liar. Unfortunately, however, most of us don't always tell the truth. What we tend to do is tell people things we think will make them believe what we think we want them to believe. Therefore, we live in a world of shadows. The reality is that truth is like an onion; when you peel one layer, you find another layer. It's very difficult to know what the absolute truth is and how many absolute truths there are, if any. But the pursuit of those truths--the continuous process of peeling that onion--is critical to us getting better.

Over the years I've observed a number of large organizations which have failed. Almost inevitably the primary cause was that the leaders of those organizations failed to tell themselves the truth. They misled themselves and, therefore, a small mistake got to be bigger and became fatal. Telling yourself the truth is the first step. You can always be confident that you will get the good news out; it is more important to always get the bad news out.

Good leaders create visions of what it would be like if something were better. They look to the future and not the past. They develop strategies to make those visions a reality and they teach people how to make those strategies work. Good leaders understand that people are fundamentally, intrinsically motivated to do the right things, to make a contribution, to make a difference. They also recognize that people have fears; they're afraid of not surviving. Good leaders do everything they can to drive out fear.

Good leaders understand that the way we contribute is through service to others, and that such service must be a mutually beneficial relationship. They also do everything they can to develop as many win-win relationships as possible. Good leaders understand that people in a team will optimize their contribution based on how good they feel about being in that team and how self-fulfilled they are in their work. So good leaders try to practice the five basic principles of self-fulfillment--trust, responsibility, mutual supportiveness, learning, and telling the truth.

Good leaders also have two important personality characteristics--courage and compassion. Leadership, while it exists in relationship with others, begins inside and comes from a higher level of personal self regard and true self-confidence. Out of this comes courage to do what you believe is right.

Compassion is the characteristic that sometimes separates good leaders from successful leaders. Good leaders always have compassion. Compassion is defined as love with discipline. A compassionate act is when a parent disciplines a child because the parent knows that if he doesn't discipline the child, the child may make a significant mistake in the future. It's not about disciplining when the parent is mad at the child or embarrassed about the child, it's about discipline when the parent doesn't want to do it but knows it's the right thing to do. At some point or points in your life, your parents had compassion for you or you wouldn't be here. Compassion comes out of a fundamental belief that at the level of the soul, everybody has a contribution to make, and everybody has a story to tell. So it comes out of a respect for all human beings. Good leaders have courage and they have compassion.

I'd like to make a suggestion. Each one of you will be and can be good leaders. Think of a vision for yourself--what it would look like if you were better. Develop a strategy to make that vision a reality, and teach yourself and find teachers to help you make that strategy work. The first step to good leadership is to be a good follower. There's no question that all of you can make a difference, and all of you will make a difference.