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Leonard Abess Shares Thoughts on Leadership During Cobb Leadership Lecture Series

November 18, 2009
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Leonard Abess

  Leonard Abess speaks at Storer auditorium as part of
  the Cobb Leadership Lecture Series.

Ethical leaders show respect to others, listen, coach and educate their team. They set a tone for an organization’s values and communicate a shared vision. That was the message from Leonard Abess, CEO of City National Bank of Florida, when he spoke to alumni, students, professors and members of the South Florida community as part of the Cobb Leadership Lecture Series on Nov. 18.

“You can define ethical behavior and I think you can imprint why it’s a good thing and why it’s important, but I think it’s much deeper,” he said. “You’ve got to be self confident, you’ve got to be prepared and you’ve got to be ready to be the one in the room who’s messing up.”

Abess, who is also serving a term as Miami branch director of the Federal Reserve, is vice chairman of the University’s board of trustees, as well as a member of several other University committees. He received national attention after selling a majority interest in the bank to Spain-based Caja Madrid and sharing $60 million of the proceeds with the bank’s staff and many former employees. That act led Time magazine to select him as one of the top 100 leaders in the world, and President Barack Obama singled him out during his address the Joint Session of Congress in February.

“Ethical leadership … is learned from life lessons,” Abess told the audience, explaining that much of what he knows about leadership he learned from his father. Abess says he learned his earliest lesson around the age of six. An avid coin collector, he was allowed to go through bags of coins at his father’s bank to find additions to his collection. He brought home four quarters, and a pencil. His father told him he’d have to put a dollar back for the four quarters, and then asked him where the pencil came from. Frightened, Abess said he got it at school. The pencil had the bank’s name on it, so his father immediately found him out – and made him return the pencil in front of a lot of people. “I learned that if I wanted to lead, I had to conduct myself above the highest standards that I expected from other people,” Abess said. “You can tell 99 truths and one lie and you’ll be known forever for that one lie.”

Abess says he also learned about leadership from observing his father. From his father’s lengthy conversations with and relationships with people in all walks of life – from cab drivers to elevator operators – Abess learned about empathy, respect for others and that leaders are “dedicated to lifting everyone up.” He also came to understand that leaders listen, and can learn from everyone they encounter.

Ethical leadership, Abess stressed, comes from how you choose to live your life every day. Courses on ethics and discussions on ethics, he said, “can only help you to understand what it means and why it is important. Only you can decide how to live.”

The long-running Cobb Lecture Series is made possible by an endowment gift made by Ambassador Sue Cobb for the birthday of her husband Ambassador Chuck Cobb in 1986. Past speakers include former Florida Governor Jeb Bush; Steven Sample, president of the University of Southern California; David Gergen, presidential advisor and author, Albert Dunlap, chairman and CEO of Sunbeam Corporation; Henry Kravis, founding partner of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.; David Stern, National Basketball Association commissioner; Barbara Franklin, former U.S. secretary of commerce; Robert Galvin, CEO of Motorola; C. William Verity, former U.S. secretary of commerce and former CEO of ARMCO; Casper Weinberger, former U.S. secretary of defense; and H. Ross Perot, chairman emeritus of Perot Systems Corporation.

-Rochelle Broder-Singer

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