Real Leaders Pay It Forward

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Sander A. Flaum

Stories of whopping severance packages for nonperforming CEO’s and staggering bonuses for Wall Street executives bring up such questions as, “When is enough enough?” and “Do real leaders have a responsibility to something other than their wallets?”

You’ve read the stories. The CEO of Pfizer, a company that has experienced turbulent waters in recent years, departs “unexpectedly” and receives a tidy consolation prize of nearly $200 million. Occidental Petroleum’s chief executive had a $52.1 million payday in 2006, according to a New York Times piece (4/8/07), and the typical pay package at Wall Street’s big investment firms exceeded $40 million last year.

Such stories can turn one’s stomach. They also make one 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 others who are less fortunate. Put simply, if they don’t, who will? Let me put it in even 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 when he decided to turn his life upside down. He had spent six years at J.P. Morgan, rising to the position of head of institutional sales, and 12 years before that at Goldman Sachs. He had three children—and enough money. But he was not satisfied. “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. 

He  began cold-calling organizations, driven by the desire to help fill a need for people in extreme poverty. He had been inspired by The End of Poverty, a notable book by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, professor of health policy and management and director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. Sachs is known for his work with international agencies on addressing extreme global poverty, environmental sustainability, and disease control—especially HIV/AIDS—for the developing world. He 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  Flug, Millennium Promise was looking for a chief executive officer just as he was looking for a position that would feed his soul. It was a case of the right job opening up for the right person at the right time. 

He  recalls an experience that occurred early in his tenure at Millennium Promise. He was leading a delegation of a dozen potential donors on a visit to Malawi, Africa, one of the world’s poorest countries, to demonstrate the difference that Millennium Promise makes by partnering with small villages. “We were greeted by 1,000 villagers. 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 obtained clean water, accessed through newly drilled borehole wells. 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?’”

And here’s yet another example of a true leader paying forward. Patrick Awuah, a native of Ghana, was awarded a full scholarship to attend Swarthmore. After he graduated in 1989, he went on to Microsoft where he worked on Windows components. Eight years later—and financially fortified with thousands of stock options—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 after a top American college.

Today, Ashesi is a vibrant university in Ghana, with an enrollment of 280 students from a dozen countries. Awuah received an honorary degree from Swarthmore in 2004. He 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.

Few of us mere mortals can live up to the paying forward standards set by exemplars such as Jeff Flug and Patrick Awuah. But I daresay each of us would do well to let their stories—rather than the money-grubbing exploits of all too many top executives today – guide our lives. Our legacies—our real legacies—depend upon it. What could be more important?

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner, Flaum Partners, Inc., and chairman of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor, with his son Jonathon A. Flaum, of the book The 100-Mile Walk—A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM, 2006). Contact him at [email protected].