NEW YORK — Leadership is more than being at the top of one’s game, according to the Leslie Wexner philosophy.
This story first appeared in the May 23, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Limited Brands Inc. chairman and chief executive officer, who made a rare appearance Wednesday night to talk about corporate ethics to a crowd of around 200 at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, said leadership is a balance of attributes and comes with responsibilities.
Presented in association with Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership, the seminar — entitled “What’s Good For America Towards A New Corporate Ethic” — was moderated by David R. Gergen, professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard. Wexner spoke about his early career and how Limited Inc. grew from one small store to what is now 4,000 units under seven brands, and his journey to leadership, a position with which he hasn’t totally come to grips.
“I don’t see myself as a leader,” Wexner said. “I appreciate good leadership and still like to be led to this day. Around the time I had 10 stores, people were following me.”
As Limited grew, Wexner said he realized that leadership was a fundamental part of business and today believes a true leader is someone that “knows their stuff,” gives back to his or her community and knows right from wrong. He said Limited as a company looks for these characteristics when hiring and keeps tabs on employees’ community activities.
Someone with this type of balanced perspective ultimately makes a strong leader, Wexner said, adding that when the quality of leadership improves, things get done quicker. A workaholic, on the other hand, lacks perspective, he said.
Ever in control, Wexner took no direct questions from the audience. Instead, queries were written on cards, collected by ushers and taken backstage before being handed to the moderator.
One questioner asked Wexner how he justified charitable donations with shareholder’s money, since Limited is a public company. He said he was initially firmly against the idea, but shifted his perspective over the years. Now, Wexner said he thinks businesses have an obligation to the community and that giving ends up being returned indirectly.
On beating analysts’ quarterly forecasts, Wexner said he likes the idea of reporting both quarterly and long-term financial figures to give an overall perspective on the business. In one of several references linking business and sport, he described a company’s financial track record like baseball.
“The business community would be better served if it reported both short- and long-term results,” said Wexner. “What is winning? Is it an inning, a game, a series, a season or a record over time?”