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Ridge offers leadership principles

Secretary of Homeland Defense Tom Ridge spoke Monday as the keynote presenter at the Coach K and Fuqua School of Business Conference on Leadership.

He outlined six essential principles of leadership, sprinkling his speech with anecdotes about his experiences as staff sergeant in the army during the Vietnam War, governor of Pennsylvania and secretary of the recently created Department of Homeland Defense.

Before enumerating his principles, Ridge ruminated on the nature of leadership, saying first that it is very personal.

"There are some 10,000 books on leadership in the Library of Congress, but ultimately it is many things to many people," he said. "Leadership is really about what you make it and how you choose to define it."

He said a person's conception of leadership comes from the fundamental moral lessons he or she learns as an adolescent or young adult. Ridge's personal core principles are founded upon common sense--aspire to be the best, be courteous and respectful, be responsible for your actions, know that all work has dignity, realize that education is the ultimate tool of empowerment and appreciate that no one will love you more than your mother.

Ridge said his primary mentor in his early years was his father, a man who worked hard all his life to provide for his family and who imparted valuable wisdom to his son. One lesson that remained with the secretary: there is always much more to learn.

Ridge's six principles of leadership resonated like a how-to guide for the aspiring corporate, political and professional titans who paid $1,500 to learn from nationally known leaders and from each other during the three-day conference.

His first dictum was to convey leadership through confidence, not titles. "Some people make a habit of staring at the nameplate on their desk," he said. And while titles are useful in establishing a chain of command and ensuring compliance to minimum standards, they do not guarantee that one's subordinates will exhibit commitment to the goals of an organization.

Ridge said men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, the namesake of the conference, was an example of the type of person who got a commitment from his players by going above and beyond his title through his energy and sense of values.

Once commitment from one's team is acquired, Ridge said, it becomes incumbent on the leader to facilitate a shared vision. He used the Department of Homeland Security--a new division of the President's Cabinet comprised of myriad disparate parts--as an example of how important it is to unify an organization under one overarching vision. For the DHS, he said, the mission was to prevent terrorism, reduce homeland vulnerability and help recovery in the event of an attack.

Ridge's next two principles--build a culture of trust and teamwork and always be "ready to rumble"--outlined successful practices used to work toward a shared vision, after it has been defined. He told stories of his experience in Vietnam to underscore the importance of trust and teamwork. Working with a Vietnamese company, he said, showed him how crucial trust was to any organization, particularly when the stakes are high. And he said teamwork went along with trust, relating a story of how a burly soldier's contribution of carrying excess ammunition was rewarded by his second helping of food at mealtime.

Like Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, who spoke at the Coach K and Fuqua conference Sunday night, Ridge emphasized how important it was to invest in people. "Each person on your team is an extension of your leadership," Ridge said, "and if they feel empowered by you, they will magnify your ability to lead."

He gave three examples of being "ready to rumble," i.e., not hesitating to back down from a challenge: his dramatically divergent policy initiatives as Pennsylvania governor that he said ultimately paid off, President George W. Bush's recent military action in Iraq and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. Quoting Theodore Roosevelt, he expressed an admiration for the man who gets into the ring and lays himself on the line.

In order to achieve success, Ridge said it is necessary to define and articulate success. He then outlined what successes he has had with the Department of Homeland Defense.

Finally, he suggested to his rapt audience, who eventually gave him a standing ovation, to enjoy leadership. "Don't be weighed down or overburdened by the enormity of the task," but rather surround yourself with optimistic and positive people and take challenges in stride. He said later that despite the burden of leading the Department of Homeland Security, his enjoyment of the job has increased as his knowledge and experience--and by extension his comfort level--have grown.

Following his speech, Ridge met with members of the press and discussed the recent discovery of box cutters, bleach, strike-anywhere matches and other paraphernalia aboard Southwest Airlines planes, allegedly planted by Guilford College student Nathaniel Heatwole. Ridge said the act was unnecessary because of internal security checks and may actually help terrorists more than the Department of Homeland Security. Nonetheless, he admitted, "We take lessons learned regardless of the source." He said he was concerned about the incident because he did not know how the items were brought on board the planes.

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