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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, President of Howard University

I spoke to Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, President of Howard University, about his journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Wayne: I have sickle cell anemia, a disease with a significantly shortened lifespan, debilitating painful episodes and frequent hospitalizations. I think people are surprised when they learn that about me. I haven’t met another university president with sickle cell; I haven’t met another cancer surgeon with sickle cell. This gives me a platform to advocate for a cure and for awareness for the 100,000 people living with sickle cell for whom leading productive lives can be difficult.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Wayne: I believe in service first, so I try my best to lead through service. Hard work has definitely been vital, educating myself about the subject matter, making sure I really look at data very closely, that I ask as many questions as needed. Resilience has been critical, as has perseverance, especially given my sickle cell.

In terms of setbacks, I learned along the way to focus on the journey and not the destination. I try to really immerse myself in what’s taking place day to day – as a leader that’s important. Yes, we have goals, we have profit margins, we have graduation rates we want to hit. But it is the actual work that gets us there and should give us joy. Then the success and accomplishment are much more appreciated.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Wayne: Someone who listens because there’s always something to learn. I tell student leaders to seek out a student who speaks the least. There’s always that person who is not as vocal as others and is often overlooked. A good leader recognizes the importance of getting information from not only those who speak up, but also those who may be quieter and more reserved, because they tend to be extremely thoughtful.

Additionally, I’d say humility to accept failure and using that failure as an opportunity to improve.

Lastly, being able to motivate and inspire. Having people think about the larger mission or vision and assuring they see themselves in it.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?

Wayne: That’s a great question. Dr. LaSalle Leffall is one of my mentors. He was the first black president of the American College of Surgeons, the American Cancer Society, and others. He’s very accomplished, graduated from college at age 18 with one B on his transcript, but at that time in this country, he could only apply to two medical schools. He didn’t get into either one initially, but his college president petitioned Howard University to admit him. He graduated number one in his class from Howard Medical School and the rest is history. I still think he’s one of the greatest surgeons America has ever produced and what I learned from him was discipline.

Dr. Clive Callender is the transplant surgeon who has had the most impact on minority transplantation in the world. He formed a group called MOTTEP (National Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program) focused on increasing organ donation among minorities. He was also big on discipline, but what I learned from him was how to better connect with my spirituality. For the past 20 years, including today, he sends me a word of scripture every single morning between the hours of 3:30 and 4:30. It’s a grounding way to start the day and it has connected me in a very deep way with my spirituality.

The third is Vernon Jordan. I’m always impressed when he sends people for me to help in some way. They are not people of influence but people who just called him, such as a student who emailed him. He goes out of his way to help the least among us consistently. That says a lot about who he is.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Wayne: It’s part continuing to educate yourself, but it’s also recognizing there is always more to learn and that we should constantly be seeking out that opportunity. If you block time on your schedule, 30 minutes, one hour a day where you allow yourself to “free think,” you can draw on the intellect and the creativity that resides within.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Wayne: Talent acquisition is very important. Leaders know when someone is not a good fit and needs to go, but what separates the good leaders and the great leaders is how long they take executing on that. Another thing that’s important is making sure that everyone feels valued. You have to make sure you bring them to the table to understand the mission. Third is to make sure, as a leader, people are comfortable you will do the things you’re asking them to do. I think that’s critical. Oftentimes people will run through a brick wall for you because they know they may come back tomorrow and see you sweeping the floor because you’re filling in for someone who’s not there.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Wayne: As opposed to advice I received, I would say advice that I live by is man’s greatest imperfection is his passive acceptance of his imperfection. Oftentimes we limit what we can do because of what we believe we can’t do – as opposed to trying to stretch ourselves and recognizing in that stretching there’s growth.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Wayne: This I feel strongly about: there’s so much opportunity for us to reconnect on a very humane level and I’m often saddened we don’t do that as often as we could. There is nothing like human touch. Sometimes when we look at big problems like poverty, world hunger, peace in the world, we look at it as something somebody else has to do. But the reality is, being willing in every interaction every single day to just simply be nice to people. It’s not something we talk about in our fast-paced world, but I think it is often underappreciated.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Wayne: My two main hobbies would be traveling with my family and playing soccer. Soccer has been important because it taught me about competition, sportsmanship and a little bit about being noble and honest and giving great effort.

Traveling with my family has been the best way for me to see the world and diversity of thought. Together we’ve visited between 25 and 30 countries. My kids are 14 and 12 and it has been incredible to see in them develop an openness and a willingness to accept people who are different from them and to engage them in the most humane manner.

Adam: What are key leadership challenges unique to leading an institution as historically significant as Howard?

Wayne: Howard is unique – it doesn’t just speak for the 10,000 students who are here or the 5,000 faculty and staff. Many times, people see Howard University as speaking for the African American body politic and that can sometimes be challenging. What I have come to appreciate is that there is no monolithic black body politic. We are a very diverse group of people representing very diverse backgrounds. As president, people want you to speak to all of those views and want your view to be that of the majority. What I have to do is to remove the barriers so that everyone can have a voice, everyone can do what they need to do and that is a unique challenge in being Howard University’s president that most other presidents may not have to worry about.

Adam: What has leading an HBCU taught you about leadership that would be applicable to leaders of all organizations?

Wayne: HBCUs in particular are under-resourced and underappreciated. We are responsible for some 20+ percent of all of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans, and closer to about 30 percent for all degrees in STEM, despite representing only 3 percent of all higher education institutions in this country. The fact that we punch well beyond our weight is something that can be applied to leadership elsewhere. We’re giving everyone an opportunity they might not have had and recognizing that even in a resource-strapped circumstance, if you are dedicated to a mission that’s true and attempts to serve the greater good, there is always going to be a way.

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