Four Great Questions About Leadership

Posted On: February 7

A few weeks ago, a student named Joey Brodsky, who is studying business at the University of Florida and is taking a class from a close friend of mine, Dr. Alex Sevilla, sent me some questions about some of the things he was learning about management and leadership. I thought the questions were excellent and that you might find my answers of some value.


Here is the conversation between myself and Joey.

Mr. Spence,
I am taking a senior leadership course taught by Dr. Alex Sevilla here at the Heavener School of Business. We are working on theoretical and application-based leadership strategies, learning to combine them with our skills to become better managers.
I have questions below about how you implement specific leadership theories in your work (or don’t). Experiences you have had being an influential leader from such a young age. And particular challenges you have faced overseeing and motivating individuals. I aim to relate some topics I’ve learned in my course to real-world experiences. I’ll keep them brief as I know your time is valuable, but any information you feel would be influential, I would love to learn!



1. One of the first topics we discussed in class was the differences between trait leadership and process leadership ideologies. Trait leadership has to do with personality traits that influence one’s leadership skills and process leadership being more interaction-based. Do you find leadership an inherent quality to individuals, or would you say it has more to do with how someone interacts with their ‘followers’?

If I’m reading this correctly, you are asking the age-old question, “Are leaders born or made?” I believe that if someone has good values, I can send them to a class to learn most of the process skills they need to be a good leader. However, if someone lies and doesn’t care about others, they will never become an effective leader.

Also, many people talk about extroverts versus introverts as leaders. I have seen many highly motivational and inspiring leaders who can get up in front of a group and move them to action. I’ve also seen many quiet, humble, and introspective leaders. But they have a burning passion for what they do, creating highly loyal followers.

In my opinion, a leader must be superb at two skill sets. They must be excellent at what they do and their actual job description. Then they have to have strong leadership skills. Lastly, remember that leadership is not only the purview of the people at the organization’s top. Every person in an organization leads at some level.


2. Another interesting concept we have learned is the difference between an assigned leader (a leader because of a formal position) and an emergent leader (a leader because of how others respond to them). Being such a young CEO at 26 when working with the Rockefeller Foundation, I would expect you were very influential among your peers and showcased your leadership earlier. Can you tell me a little about how you leveraged your leadership skills as an emergent leader into a more formal leadership role so early in your career? What are some of the characteristics you displayed that you think helped you to stand out?

Almost immediately after joining the foundation, I became the “right-hand man” to the CEO (not Mister Rockefeller, a professional manager who was running the company on his behalf). I spent much time watching him, learning what to do and what NOT to do. At this point in my career, I read every business book I could get my hands on and listened to 4-5 business books a week. In a meeting with our Board of Directors, one of the key directors asked a question that the CEO could not answer. Then the director (a multibillionaire) turned to me and asked me if I knew the answer – which I did. Then, the board started asking me for my opinion more often. When the current CEO began to stumble, they put me in as an interim CEO – eventually leading to me becoming the permanent CEO.

I was in no way ready to lead an organization at that age. I was woefully unprepared and realized that I could only be successful if my team were also successful. For my part, I studied, read, worked, and did everything I could to learn as much as I could about leadership and business success. I tried to model the behavior of lifelong learning and always strive to do my best. I also went to my team, asked for help, and focused intensely on empowerment. In the early days, I was very immature as a leader. Still, as I faced more situations, I slowly learned how to run the business and be a better leader for my team.


3. One quote from Professor Sevilla that resonated with me was, “It’s not about you [the leader] …it’s about them [the followers].” He said if there were to be only one thing we take away from this class, let it be this statement. In your professional experience, how important has it been to focus more directly on the group and achieving common goals rather than just using subordinates to achieve more personal objectives?

Dr. Sevilla is 1,000% right. This is a concept known as servant leadership, where leaders understand that they are there to serve their employees. Regarding your question about common goals or personal objectives – it’s not an Either/Or – it is a Both/And. Everyone in the organization must focus on the vision, strategy, and shared goals they are all aligned with as they do their work. The leader’s job is to ensure they execute the strategy with discipline and continuously deliver superb business results. Furthermore, the leader needs to help each person grow as an individual and show them how their work directly ties into the success of the overall organization.


4. Over the last few decades, you have become one of and got to work with many of the most outstanding business leaders in the world. I don’t expect a catchall answer on becoming an influential and respected leader in the business world, but what are some of the most vital traits or strategies you see these leaders (and yourself) using to motivate others? Are there some things you think are more important for a young leader like myself to help showcase my skills to companies?

Rather than give you my opinion, here is a list of traits that have emerged from the thousands of leadership classes I’ve taught and the great leaders I have had the honor to spend time with.

  • Honesty – tell the truth all the time – period. Another word here would be integrity.
  • Excellent communicator – asks great questions and is an intense listener.
  • The courage to be vulnerable- to admit that you don’t have all the answers. Another word here would be authentic.
  • Competence – you must be exceedingly good at what you do. My favorite phrase in this area is, “be so good they can’t ignore you.”
  • Great team player – treats their employees as partners and peers. Shows them respect and gives them trust.
  • Compassionate – shows a genuine concern for their people and their personal and professional growth.
  • Visionary – has a vivid, compelling vision and strategy for growth that is well-communicated across the entire organization.
  • Passionate – another word would be inspiring.
  • Innovative – a lifelong learner who is an excellent creative and strategic thinker.

Joey, I hope you found these answers helpful. Let me know if you need any more information.

I wish you every possible happiness and success – John.

Please visit my site at if you want to get in contact with me. I’d love to hear from you.

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