Leadership Means Recognizing Your Shortcomings: Jay Williams

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Recognizing and being comfortable with personal failings and forming a good team are among the characteristics of successful leaders, according to Jay Williams.

Williams, a former Youngstown mayor who now serves as president and CEO of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving in Hartford, Conn., returned to the city he led for five years to share his insights on leadership during a seminar Oct. 5.

About 70 individuals attended the lunch-and-learn program, which was hosted by Valley Partners and the Minority Business Assistance Center at the Youngstown Business Incubator. Facilitated by Matthew Longmire, business resource manager at Valley Partners, the seminar was held at the DeBartolo Stadium Club at Youngstown State University. 

Williams – who held two posts in the administration of President Barack Obama, including assistant commerce secretary for economic development – said he doesn’t have a “static definition of leadership.” Some people have a vision of leadership that involves having a “large personality” and “lots of charisma,” or a “single leader who is supposedly so wise or strong.” 

Among the characteristics Williams appreciates is the ability to recognize one’s shortcomings and frailties and not only be comfortable with them but also be comfortable with them being on public display. When leaders attempt to hide their frailties, it “very rarely ends up well for the organization,” he said.

“Every human being has insecurities and vulnerabilities. Being in a leadership position doesn’t make those things go away,” he said. A leader might be able to fool people some of the time, but at some point they will see through the facade and it will diminish that leader’s credibility.”

One of the most important decisions leaders can make is with whom they surround themselves. The members of that team or circle “will make or break” the organization, Williams said.

If the leader is the smartest person at the table, something is wrong, he said.

The leader has to make decisions. “But I want that final decision to be informed by people who are much more proficient at their specific roles than I am,” Williams said. 

“Are those individuals going to be empowered by the leader to challenge the leader’s thinking, to come up with a better result? Or are they going to be obsequious? Are they going to have their fealty to the leader because of ego?” he asked.

The latter is happening more often in this country in business and politics, to the country’s detriment, he warned.

“Your job as leaders is to bring the best out of the people that you have on your team,” he said.

Another aspect of leadership he discussed was the importance of vision. Williams shared Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Having vision allows people to not be stuck in their current circumstances and inspires them to move toward that vision, he said.

During the discussion, Williams reflected on how the Youngstown 2010 plan came to be. Amid an approaching winter storm, more than 1,200 citizens gathered in Stambaugh Auditorium for more than three hours “to share their aspirations and frustrations,” eventually leading to the crafting of the plan, which was unveiled in 2005.

Not all of what the plan outlined has been achieved. But much of what is happening today in the city “is rooted in those conversations,” he said. Leaders “can’t be afraid to fail.”

Williams emphasized the importance of being willing to engage people who have different ideas and “challenge yourself to learn and understand their perspective.”

He continued: “Because you have a perspective, it doesn’t mean it’s the right perspective for the situation at hand.”

Something Williams said he has taken from Youngstown is the notion of “not being stuck in what someone might define as your worst moment, whether it’s as a community or an individual, and not letting that define you.”

Among those attending the lunch-and-learn program were Bonita Starkey, owner of Keystar Insurance, and Hasheen Wilson, CEO of New Vision Behavioral Health Services.

Starkey said among the key points she took away are the importance of understanding the people she works with and being empathetic and vulnerable.

“People want to understand that you understand first,” she said. “I get a lot of complaints about this, that and the other thing. But it is definitely true that people want to know that you understand, above and beyond.”

For Wilson, key takeaways include that it is OK to “fail forward as a leader” and to be humble and transparent. He appreciated the knowledge that a leader might make a poor decision based on bad information that might need to be revisited with new information to move forward.

“From a leadership aspect, it’s important to know that it’s a journey,” he said.

Williams’ response to an audience question likely disappointed the person who posed it, along with others in attendance: When was he going to announce his candidacy for president of the United States?

While he would “never say never” to political office, he said he is enjoying his work in the philanthropic sector and being out of the spotlight. His wife, Sonja, has made it “unequivocally clear” that doing so might bring his 22-year marriage “to a screeching quick end.”

“So don’t hold your breath,” he said.

Pictured at top: Jay Williams served as mayor from 2005 to 2011.