In our divided and socially-distanced COVID age, leadership has never been more important. But effective leadership for these times is as difficult to find as it is to define. Is it an iron-fisted presence that commands respect? Deft negotiating to topple opposition? An irresistible influence to sway crowds?
In our experience, the best leaders are those who not only model courage, conviction and integrity but who also inspire others to find these traits within themselves and act on them. They help us endure tough times and give us reason to aspire for better, once things return to normal.
Someone who embodied this type of leadership was Steven Skinner, a Cognizant associate, retired Naval Commander and friend who sadly passed away in early 2019. Steven was an inspiring figure filled with empathy for others and grounded by integrity in his decision making.
Traits to Model
Three of Steven’s most memorable traits are an inspiration to anyone seeking to positively impact the world around us:
- Stand tall. At 6’5”, Steven never had any trouble standing tall in the physical sense. But doing so morally and ethically gave him the stature of a leader in the eyes of those who met him. Whether at work or in his personal life, Steven was a paragon of integrity. It can be easy to cut corners or blindly oblige in pursuit of pleasing clients. But true leaders never sacrifice their moral standing for the sake of their professional or financial stakes.
- Broaden your perspective. As a consultant, Steven spent many a night on the road. As a result, he visited 48 states across the country. And through his love of travel, he visited another 45 countries across the globe. Combined with his curiosity about others, Steven’s travels allowed him to constantly expand his scope of humanity and better understand the perspective of others.
- Embolden others. There are two ways to inspire. The first is to exude such brilliance and virtuoso talent in your own endeavors that you provide an example of what others can be. The second, and more impactful way, is to awaken the brilliance others have inside them but have not yet realized. Leaders like Steven find a way to do both.
Leadership in Action
To get a sense of what this brand of leadership looks like in the real world, here are two accounts from our personal experience.
When I met Steven, I was fresh out of grad school and a few weeks into my career as a consultant. The days were long, and the workload intense. I felt overwhelmed at times and started to question whether I’d made the right call in taking this path.
With the announcement that a VP would be visiting to meet with clients and check in with the project team, I expected the intensity to ratchet up even more. But the opposite happened. Steven hit the ground running with back-to-back-to-back client meetings to learn more about their pain points and offer guidance on next steps for the engagement. Despite a schedule packed with travel and meetings, he greeted our consulting team with the boundless energy I would come to know as his trademark.
During the meeting, he spent time listening to us and learning the back stories that had brought us to Cognizant. Then, he shared some stories of his own, including a few comedic renditions of his travels throughout the world sampling local fare that didn’t always agree with his stomach (somehow he still made every client meeting on the schedule). He closed the meeting by addressing the most recent hires on the team – no doubt, a testimony to his leadership instincts as I was in desperate need of a pep talk.
I remember the day I met Steven, at the National Black MBA conference. When he entered the office where we were conducting interviews for potential job candidates, Steven brought excitement and encouragement to all who were engaged in the process – candidates and interviewers alike. This man radiated strength, kindness and authority. He was an amazing judge of talent, aptitude and potential, often making offers to well-deserving candidates right on the spot.
At the time, I had at least 20 years of professional experience behind me and had met countless business leaders, including CEOs; however, I’d never been more inspired by any individual in business. Great leaders empower others to be great. They open opportunities, provide direction and allow them to fly. That is what Steven did for me.
Steven’s positive attitude, boundless energy, attention to detail and willingness to listen made him a remarkable friend, leader and mentor. He was patient and kind to everyone he encountered, from the taxi driver to the most senior executive – a genuinely remarkable soul. My life is better because of knowing and learning from the late Steven Skinner.
Passing the Torch
A legacy like Steven Skinner’s is not built in a day or even a year. It is cultivated over a lifetime of compassionate leadership and achievement. To further Steven’s legacy, Cognizant is stepping up to honor him with the Steven Skinner Endowed Scholarship Fund, which will be administered by the National Black MBA Association. The endowment, launched with $50,000, will award scholarships to underrepresented students pursuing MBAs – with a preference for first-generation MBA students.
We can all take steps today to pursue our own legacy of leadership. Stand tall in your convictions of integrity and morality. Broaden your perspective to understand and empathize with people of all walks of life. Embolden others by modeling excellence in your own endeavors and igniting in them their own passion for greatness. That is the leadership Steven modeled every day of his career and is the leadership we need today.
The first personal account is written by Desmond Dickerson. The second is by Sonya McLaughlin.
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