John Addison is the author of "Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living With Purpose." He served as co-CEO of Primerica Inc. from 1999 to 2015.
Leadership is an elusive quality. Yet after 25 years at Primerica Inc., John Addison is in a position to offer his insights into what makes a good leader. Addison, author of “Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living With Purpose,” served as co-CEO of Primerica Inc. from 1999 to 2015 and played a pivotal role in steering the company through changes including its separation from Citigroup Inc. in 2009. He's also leadership editor of “Success Magazine.” Rick Bell caught up with Addison, now president and CEO of Addison Leadership Group, via email.
Workforce: How do you teach leadership?
John Addison: Leadership needs to be modeled. It’s hard to teach leadership as if it is in front of a classroom. The best way to teach it is to model it day to day so they can watch what you do and how you do it. Leadership is not just about telling people what to do; it’s more about showing people what to do and why they’re doing something. As a leader, you’re making tough decisions; not everyone is going to be happy. But if you’re developing people under you, it’s important they understand what and how you’re doing it.
WF: Is ethics lacking among the institutions that teach leadership?
Addison: Yes. Too often, processes are taught instead of ethics. Leadership isn’t taught, particularly in business school, as most just offer courses in marketing, management, etc., but too often among schools the focus is too process-oriented on running the business vs. how your behavior or ethics should be. When you become a serious business leader, there is an ethical piece to what you’re doing — in addition to the shareholder value.
WF: We often hear the term, born leader. Urban legend or fact?
Addison: Both are true. There are people who are born with leadership traits. They are not necessarily born as leaders, but have the necessary characteristics. Some people are born with more communication skills or certain talents (i.e., more natural people person), but these traits are not the actual ‘proof in the pudding’ of leadership. You can still achieve success with these traits by learning them. Real leadership is more learned and earned than occurring through natural selection and DNA.
WF: Do you find that men lead differently than women or is there a common thread that runs through both sexes?
Addison: While there is a difference, I’m not sure how much is from DNA vs. how we’re socialized. In general, women are better at socialization while men are more bureaucratic. But from my experience, I’ve really seen no difference based on someone being male or female in their leadership. Quite often, women have more empathy than men, which I see as a great skill of a leader — to be empathic and understand where people stand and the issues they face. Whether you are a man or woman though, a great leader is a great leader. It often has more to do with their traits and what they’re made of.