Kaplan CEO Tom Leppert '77 reflects on leadership and how CMC helped launch him

CMC_Tom_Leppert_Sept2014_e_2In the rarified world of CMC overachievers, Tom Leppert ’77 holds a special place: he has been equally successful in both the public and private sectors as CEO of several companies, White House Fellow during the Reagan Administration, and mayor of Dallas, Texas.

Leppert’s resume shows a man constantly expanding the limits of his own comfort zone. Who better then to lecture about “Contrasting Leadership in the Public and Private Sectors” at a luncheon held at the Marion Miner Cook Athenaeum on Sept. 24?

“I have been fortunate to be a member of large organizations and have a real appreciation for the challenges that each one of you is going to have,” he told students at the event co-sponsored by the Robert Day School Economics and Finance, the Kravis Leadership Institute and the Rose Institute for State and Local Government.

“For me it all goes back to two things that laid the foundation for whatever successes I’ve had in my life: my mother, her character and values that I received. But everything I’ve achieved in life started – literally – at this campus. It was the basis of all the different positions I’ve been able to hold, but even more importantly, the life perspectives that I learned.”

Currently, Leppert is Chief Executive Officer of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of Graham Holdings Company and one of the world's largest education providers. From 2007 to 2011, he served as mayor of Dallas, Texas and previously worked as CEO of the Turner Corporation.

Leppert earned a Bachelor's Degree in economics with cum laude honors from CMC in 1977 and served as Student Body President. He then went on to attend Harvard Business School, where he received a M.B.A. with Distinction in 1979. Leppert served as a White House Fellow in the Reagan Administration and was one of 13 fellows chosen from 1,247 applicants by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

For Leppert, CMC is a special place due in no small measure to the roundabout way he enrolled at the College as an undergraduate.

“I had been getting schooling at a community college after going to a really undistinguished high school where every one of the 4,000 students enrolled lived no more than about 10 miles from the school,” he said. “Someone told me about a small college in Southern California. I bummed a ride out here.

“I was supposed to have no more than a 15-minute conversation with the Dean of Admissions, Emery Walker, at CMC and it turned into three hours,” Leppert continued. “At the end of those three hours he told me to come back at the next month without a transcript, application or test scores.”

Leppert told the story, he said, for two reasons. “Number one, there are going to be times in your life when your path will be very different from what you expect. It’s exciting and a lot of opportunities come out of it. The second part is that one person can make a difference. A guy by the name of Emery Walker made that difference in my life.”

Leppert’s Lessons of Leadership

  1. Feel Overwhelmed – “Starting out in the professional world, I always felt as if I was overwhelmed, but years later, after having run businesses in six different industries, there was no way that I ever felt intimidated in any situation. Whatever you are doing, if you feel comfortable, you are making a big mistake. Make sure that you come up for air once in a while but that for the most part you are way underwater. I wish I could tell you it was success that always motivated me. It wasn’t. It was fear of failure.”
  2. Be Leery of Straight Lines – “As I look back on the path I took, there were a lot of 45-degree angles. Take detours in your career; you’ll gain valuable experience and learn to add value and create opportunities you didn’t see coming. Maybe doing exactly what you want to do today isn’t going to give you the satisfaction, joy and happiness that will make the difference later in life.”
  3. Bend but Don’t Break – “Every leader that I know is committed and dedicated to something that he or she is passionate about. For me, I start with my Christian faith. To you it may be something very different. Make sure you understand what it is because there will always be times when you are compromising. But you have to understand when you’re compromising on principle.”
  4. Give to Get – With all due respect to CMC, this isn’t the way the rest of the world is. Engage with communities beyond your comfort zone because that’s how you’ll become successful. In other words, give back to the community because there is a passion beyond the paycheck. Anybody that runs a major corporation knows that their shareholders aren’t the most important anymore. It’s the greater population that will determine how that CEO and his organization are viewed.

In a career of leading by example, Leppert had definite ideas about what kind of people he wanted around him in any endeavor be it public or private.

“I want to have people around me who agree with my heart. I don’t care if they agree with my head,” he said. “In fact, it’s actually a bonus if they don’t. I would rather have people around me who fundamentally disagree with me on intellectual questions, but I don’t want anyone around me who disagrees with me on values and integrity because you can’t change people that way. It doesn’t work; it’s a 1 to 100 game.”

Leppert ended his talk with a quote by Winston Churchill which underscored his core message and added a nice symmetry to the afternoon: “You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.”

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