Real Leaders Pay It Forward

Whopping severance pay for nonperforming CEOs, staggering bonuses for Wall Street executives. We have to ask: Do leaders have a responsibility to something bigger than their wallets?
Jul 30, 2007


Sander Flaum
You've read the stories. The CEO of Pfizer departs "unexpectedly" and receives a tidy consolation prize: nearly $200 million. Occidental Petroleum's chief executive had a $52.1 million payday in 2006, according to an April New York Times piece, and the typical pay package for the leaders of Wall Street's big firms exceeded $40 million last year.

Such stories do more than garner garish headlines. They turn stomachs. They also make us wonder: Where have all the real leaders gone? Where are the positive stories about successful people who really are making a difference in the world? Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who've given hundreds of millions to good causes, represent obvious and heartening exceptions. Their legacies will last long after the ink has dried on the latest "World's Richest People" list.

I firmly believe that successful people do have a clear responsibility to "pay it forward," to invest in the well-being of those who are less fortunate. Put simply: If they don't, who will? In stronger terms: If you're not paying forward, you're not a leader in the best sense of that term.

Here are two sterling examples of young men who decided that it was more important to make a big difference than to cash the next big paycheck.

Jeff Flug was only 43 years old when he turned his life upside down. He had spent six years at JPMorgan, rising to the position of head of institutional sales, and 12 years before that at Goldman Sachs. He had three children. And money. But that was not enough. "I was looking for something more meaningful, more substantive. I wanted to change what I was thinking about in the morning." So in April 2006, he quit his job.

Flug had been inspired by The End of Poverty, a notable book by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, who is currently professor of health policy and management and director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. Sachs is known for his work with international agencies addressing extreme global poverty. Sachs is also the president and cofounder of Millennium Promise, an organization with an extraordinary mission: "to ensure ours is the last generation to know poverty."

Happily for Jeff Flug, Millennium Promise was looking for a CEO just as he was looking for a position that would feed his soul. It was a case of the right job for the right person at the right time.

Flug recalls an experience from early in his time at Millennium Promise. He was leading a delegation of potential donors on a visit to Malawi. "We were greeted by 1,000 villagers," says Flug. "During one harvest season, they had realized a five-fold increase in their crop harvest. They were building a granary to hold their excess maize. They had attained clean water. And they were beginning to build their own medical clinic out of bricks made out of mud. The village chief thanked me with tears in his eyes, saying 'Look at what we have done together!' I turned to my wife and said, 'Do you see why I can't go back to selling high-yield bond deals?'"

Here's another example of a true leader paying forward. Patrick Awuah, a native of Ghana, was awarded a full scholarship to attend Swarthmore College. After he graduated in 1989, he went on to Microsoft. Eight years later—financially fortified—he left Microsoft to enroll at the Haas School of Business at the University of California. At Haas, he assembled a team to study the creation of a new university in Ghana, modeled along the lines of a top American college.

Today, Awuah's Ashesi University is growing in Ghana, enrolling 280 students from a dozen countries. Awuah was among 250 people around the world who were nominated Global Leaders 2007. This award by the World Economic Forum recognizes the unique contributions and potential of individuals drawn from a pool of 4,000 leaders worldwide.