American Express’s Kenneth I. Chenault on Leadership

According to Kenneth I. Chenault, Chairman and CEO of American Express, not only can leadership be learned, but "it is a responsibility and a privilege that must be cultivated."  Twenty-four nonprofit leaders who attended AmEx’s weeklong intensive Nonprofit Leadership Academy agreed. 


Chenault explained, paraphrasing a quote by Napoleon, that "the role of the leader is to define reality and give hope."  He continued on to say that "any intelligent person can analyze a situation, but a leader also must construct the vision, and motivate people to reach challenging objectives." 


Addressing today’s economic climate, Chenault stressed that "people want to see the leader.  You need to communicate constantly.  Don’t assume that people are seeing what you are seeing.  And, you’ve got to act. Never let events freeze you up."  He also emphasized the importance of looking outward at client and customer needs.  And, developing leaders at every level in the organization.


How does Chenault identify good leaders in his company?  "Look for the person that other people follow."  He also looks for integrity, which he defines as honesty as well as consistency of actions and words; courage, which he defines as "constructive confrontation"; collaboration, which he defines as being "effective in helping the team to win"; and "demonstrating an authentic concern for people, because as a leader, you affect the livelihoods of your people and the success of your organization."


When asked about nonprofit boards, Chenault said that it’s important to have board members who want the organization to win, who have a passion for the organization and who are engaged, because you are going to ask them to sacrifice their time and money.   When asked how you make the case for your nonprofit, Chenault says to "differentiate your business model from peer groups based on analysis, make a compelling case, and show what the consequences are if the case is not addressed."


In addition to learning from AmEx leaders, participants at the Leadership Academy engaged in intensive self-assessment and coaching conducted by Shera Clark and her team from the Center for Creative Leadership.


The impact of AmEx’s investment will be exponential as the participants return to their organizations to lead nonprofits that marshal tens of millions of dollars to help educate tens of thousands of young people, revitalize urban centers in every state, support small business development, feed tens of thousands of hungry families, and help men, women, and children find shelter and rebuild their lives.


Participants included emerging leaders from these organizations:  American Red Cross, Audubon Arizona, Broward Partnership for the Homeless, Catholic Community Services of Utah, Childsplay, Cleveland Food Bank, Family Central, Inc., Feeding America, Hispanic Scholarship Fund, Lowcountry Food Bank, National Academy Foundation, National Mainstreet Program, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Music Academy of North Carolina-Greensboro, Partnership for After School Education, and 87 Afterschool Program.

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