Perspectives on Philanthropy
from Jerold Panas
Books by Jerold Panas
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The Eight Secrets to Success
Essential Qualities of Exceptional Leaders
I am sitting with Placido Domingo. I’ll explain.
The Washington Opera is a client. I’m conducting a board retreat and the towering tenor will be one of the speakers. He is the Music Director of the Washington Opera.
I guess everyone would consider him one of today’s greatest tenors. Perhaps the greatest in memory. Caruso, Domingo— a toss up.
We’re having lunch. I am completely awe-struck. He’s bigger than life — like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
I’m thinking: I want to appear poised, as stylish and sophisticated as possible. But I find myself speaking in a hushed, reverential voice, as a Cardinal might speak to the Holy Father.
SEMINARS FOR FUNDRAISERS 2014
He puts me completely at ease. The conversation flows. My nerve returns. I start asking questions.
“Why does one singer, someone like you, become a living legend while other performers, as good as they may be, never gain true prominence? What exactly makes the difference between the star and the superstar?”
“That’s easy,” says Domingo. He takes a moment to finish a last bite.
“Most stars play it safe because they feel they have too much to lose. Superstars throw caution to the wind, improvise impulsively, and are willing to go for the high note. Take Leontyne Price, for instance. She hits a perfect A above middle C, and sustains it. That takes the talent of a star, but also the fearlessness of a superstar.”
That’s it, I thought. A willingness to go for the high note. Superstars give everything they’ve got and hold back nothing at all. They abandon the comfort zone. Ability. Aura. And audacity.
That luncheon and discussion with Placido Domingo was one of the special moments in my life, a feast of rare serendipity.
And it started me to thinking about a remarkable man I know – someone I consider one of those superstars.
His name is Dr. Neal R. Berte -- one of the most extraordinary college presidents I’ve ever met. He heads Birmingham Southern College.
Not long ago, I was in Birmingham with another client. We’re having a meeting with some of the city’s elders, trying to identify the strongest and most influential leader in town -- the single most outstanding person.
Without pause, and almost in unison, everyone mentions the name, Neal Berte. Who is this superstar, I ask? When I hear he’s president of a college I’m surprised. Not ever, as far as I can remember, has a college president been credited with being one of the strongest leaders in town -- especially in a city as large as Birmingham.
The leaders then start telling me the story of Neal Berte. He received Birmingham’s Distinguished Citizen Award, was named to the Distinguished Gallery of Honor by the city, was cited twice as one of Birmingham’s Top 10 Leaders of the Decade, and was chosen as one of The 100 Most Effective College Presidents in the Nation.
I was impressed. And there is more.
Neal Berte has been President of Birmingham Southern for 25 years. That in itself is unusual. More than two decades is a long time for a college president. It defies all odds. The job is filled with stress and strain, a balancing act of doing 100 chores at the same time — like the little man on The Ed Sullivan Show who ran back and forth twirling wobbly glass plates on top of long poles. It’s a tough job. They say that every corporation has terrible problems but only a college has a faculty!
When Neal Berte came to the College, the student body was 727. It has since doubled. The budget has increased 12-fold, and has been balanced for 21 consecutive years. During his tenure, the endowment has grown to $136 million— outstanding for a school its size. And last year, Birmingham Southern, with Neal Berte spending over half his time in development activities, raised $18.1 million.
It’s a staggering record.
What makes this man so special? Why in the minds and hearts of so many is he such a towering figure? Much of it has to do with his unbounded reservoir of courage, honor, compassion, pride, and integrity. He is always raising the bar for himself. Then too, there’s his passion -- passion for the students. He has the stunning capacity to see the infinite in every student.
But there’s another quality to Neal Berte, one of eight, in my view, shared by all great leaders – and that is his prodigious memory.
You will think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not, when I tell you that Neal Berte knows every student on campus. I mean it. He literally knows every one of their names, what subjects they’re taking, and how they’re doing in school. He knows their parents, and if they’ve had siblings who attended, he remembers them too. It wouldn’t surprise me if he knew the name of the family’s pet dog!
Let Evan Milligan tell you first-hand about the President’s memory. Evan is now a sophomore at the College. He remembers vividly when he first President Berte.
He was a high school senior. It was Scholarship Day and he was visiting Birmingham Southern on a tour. He and his mother were just finishing lunch in the college dining hall. As he was getting up from the table, he heard an unfamiliar voice. “Hi, Evan. How are you today? I’ve heard great things about you.”
“We spoke for a few minutes,” says Evan. “I didn’t know who he was. When we got on the other side of the room, I said, ‘Mom, who was that man?’ And she said, ‘Evan, that was the President of the College.’”
Evans says that he and his family talked about it for days and days. “Guess where I decided to go to college! It’s still a mystery how he would have known about me.”
Or take Amelia Spencer. “On my first week on campus,” says Amelia, “I was walking up the steps in one of the buildings when I met President Berte walking down. I recognized him, of course. I was amazed to find that he recognized me, too. He spoke to me, welcomed me to campus, and asked how my sick grandmother was doing.” Amelia stopped dead in her tracks, mouth agape, and stared in shock that he even knew her. And knew about her grandmother, too!
The stories abound. There are dozens and dozens I heard about, just like those of Evan and Amelia.
I find that with the great leaders I’ve known and worked with, they all have piercing recall. Their memory is like an internal computer that’s forever bringing up information, data, and names from the past. Whether they consciously or unconsciously work on it, it is part of their being.
Memory isn’t inherent. It grows with continued practice and exercise.
I ask Jerry E. Sisson, the Chairman of the College Board, what makes Neal Berte, this quiet man of slight build and medium height, such a stand-out. Why is it electrifying when he walks into the room?
For one thing, explains Dr. Sisson, Neal speaks with consuming conviction and authority.
That’s it. I believe I’ve put my finger on it. It’s the compelling authority when he speaks. It’s almost as if he grabs you by the lapels.
That is another important key to success: To communicate with blinding conviction, unshakable confidence, and transcendent authority. No need for theatrics or flaying arms — just to speak with words that, as Hemingway said: “Burn with a hard, gem-like flame.”
Everyone speaks about Dr. Berte’s vision. He imagines the totally impossible — and then makes it happen. He is a broker of dreams. And he puts that vision into action.
Emily Dickinson could have been describing Neal Berte when she wrote that it is the imagination that lights the slow fuse of the possible. To him, saying impossible always puts you on the losing side.
For many people, their focus is to the rear. It is what Tom Wolfe calls: “Stillborn, ossified, and prematurely senile.” Berte is one with the Queen of Wonderland. She said to the incredulous Alice: “Why, my dear, I have already believed in 10 impossible things before breakfast.”
In life, we are all faced with exciting opportunities — brilliantly disguised as impossible situations. Berte sees no problems, only opportunities. Having vision requires a willingness to overcome obstacles. Vision begins with wonder.
Leaders see the big picture. They are visionaries. They have a way of galvanizing others to their barrier-breaking thresholds. No easy task, this — having others accept and acclaim your dreams.
To follow your dream takes audacity. It means leaving familiar land and sometimes navigating an obsolete and tired vessel past uncharted reefs and unfamiliar waters. It means working with board and staff, patching over old ways, plugging tried and tired leaks, and hoping not to be pitched overboard while rolling from port to starboard.
I consider I am on a life search to understand excellence. Still I wondered -- what it was about this man to whom one of his board members called “perfect.” The questions persisted like a pebble in my shoe.
George Jenkins, Vice President for Development at Birmingham Southern, says that Dr. Berte is pretty much hands-on. “He likes to make sure that things are done as close to perfection as possible. He’s just as demanding of himself. For all of us on the staff, the quest for quality starts at the top. He works harder than any of us and his expectations for himself are extremely high.”
The Germans have a word for what drives a perfectionist: Tüchtig — do it right. That’s Neal Berte. Always. There can be a downside to that: Working with a perfectionist can be like living with a dog — it can be messy. He not only sees the forest, Dr. Berte can and does count the trees. But there’s this intensity, this burning passion. It’s like fire burning in his bones. This quiet giant, just being around him you can feel the heat.
“What impresses me as much as anything is his energy,” says Larry Striplin, a member of the board for over 20 years and someone who knows Neal Berte just about as well as anyone.
“He’s like a well that never runs dry. I don’t know how he does it, but he never lets up.” Goethe said: “Whatever you believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, power, and grace.” And action requires energy. Berte, he is prepared to let the waves come in — with the full confidence that he will ride them energetically and triumphantly.
Neal is up at 5:30 every morning. By 6:00 he and his wife Anne are into their hour’s regimen of exercise. In the evening, they take an extended and unhurried walk around the campus.
Berte sends 100 letters and notes a week. He doesn’t use a computer. “I’ve never known a computer to raise a dollar.” One of his staff told me he thinks the President works a 36-hour day, including Saturday and Sunday. “I figure it’s the only way he can accomplish all he does.”
Take note. I want to tell you what donors reported to us in a study. We asked: “When you are asked by someone for a gift (either a volunteer or a professional), what qualities do you remember most that are of the greatest importance? You felt good about the cause, of course — or you wouldn’t have made a gift. What was it that the caller brought to the discussion that was most significant?”
There are three attributes, donors report, that they admire most in a solicitor: empathy, enthusiasm, and energy. These three characteristics form a stunning constellation that adds brilliance to all great stars.
I consider Empathy the caller’s ability to listen carefully and thoughtfully, and be sensitive to what the other person feels. It’s what the Native Americans said about, “putting yourself in another person’s moccasins.”
Enthusiasm conveys the caller’s excitement and passion for the cause. It is the flame of fire that burns inside.
And Energy is what all leaders and great fund raisers seem to have in abundance. It assails us, penetrates us, and molds us.
For a person of high energy, there is a kaleidoscope of human action and ebullience that takes a thousand forms and works in a million ways.
All leaders have it. There isn’t time to doubt. There is an energy so intense that it vanquishes all questions, conquers all challenges. There is no wall too high to climb.
There is a sense of modesty about Neal Berte. He would tell you he has tremendous help in all he does. “I’ve been only a small part of moving the College forward,” says this self-effacing president. “There have been so many others who have made it happen.”
But don’t believe it for a minute, says Larry Striplin, a member of the college’s board for over 20 years: “He has been the guiding force. He has been a beacon light for all to follow.”
Humility, William Faulkner called the old verity and truth of the heart, is the quiet force that gives the gentle Neal Berte wings to fly. He has humility -- all great leaders do.
On his 90th birthday, Pablo Cassals was interviewed by a young reporter. Asked why he was still practicing four hours a day at his age, Cassals replied: “I think I am making progress.” That was not a case of false modesty. It was a display of virtue, wisdom, and humility.
We learn from the author, Guy de Maupassant, that humility is prolonged patience. It requires a dauntless spirit of resolution, inner-strength, and determined self-confidence. Humility is the seed that blossoms in every leader.
The Persian poet Hafez wrote: “Keep in your heart a shrine to humility and on that altar let the fire never die.”
True leadership depends not only on outstanding ability, it also means sacrifice, self-denial, and humility. All of these qualities are important, but a leader with humility is endlessly inspirational.
Larry Striplin tells me that the President calls him several times a week. Every week. I also find out that Neal Berte is in contact with almost all of his board members a couple times a week.
The CEOs I work with -- in universities, medical centers, museums, and so forth – the ones who are the most effective and have the strongest operations, spend at least a third of their time identifying, recruiting, supporting, and stewarding their board members and volunteers.
A strong leader is not front and center, but empowers others to greater heights.
Neal Berte has the magnetism which draws the heart and spirit of men and women.
Michelangelo is often quoted as saying that inside every block of marble dwells a beautiful figure. Remove the excess material, chip away at the marble, and the work of art within will be revealed.
Empowering others is much like this. To find the work of art within each person, one need only lift their spirit, bolster their confidence, magnify the credit due them, exalt their self-esteem - these are the acts of empowerment.
There’s more. And that is to help others find the journey less challenging, less menacing. On a small muddy road outside Biddeford, Maine, there’s a sign that reads: “Choose your rut carefully. You’ll be in it for the next 12 miles.” The true leader empowers others to fly, to stay out of the ruts.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They said, “We are afraid.”
“Come to the edge,” he said.
He pushed them…
And they flew.
I have a thesis. You may not agree. But I feel as strongly about this as the Apostle Paul did when he wrote to the Galatians: “Believe me, what I write is the plain truth.”
I believe winning is a matter of attitude. If you think you can, you’re right. If you think you can’t, you’re right.
John Wooden is likely regarded as the greatest basketball coach in collegiate history. When he was at the University of California, he led his teams to 10 championships. “I approach a basketball game the same way I do a negotiation or anything in life,” he says. “If you think you’re the underdog, you’ll subconsciously expect to lose. And you will. If you expect to win, it puts you on top.”
If being a winner means having a positive attitude about outcomes, Neal Berte is a winner of primal status. He practices the credo that all things are possible to those who believe and have abiding faith.
Everyone I spoke with, staff and board members, talk about him being a winner. Larry Striplin was a basketball coach of national regard before he left to make his fortune in industry. He knows a thing or two about winning. “What I like about Neal is his winning attitude. He never undertakes anything where he doesn’t believe, in his heart of hearts, he will win.”
Someone said that no one remembers who finished second. Winning certainly isn’t everything, but in the game of leadership, having a winning attitude is the quintessence of motivating others to your great cause. The pull is powerful, like steel filings to a magnet.
When Dean Rusk was running the Rockefeller Foundation, he advised staff members to keep their eye on the Ford Foundation because “what the fat boy in the canoe does makes a difference to everybody else.” Winning means knowing your competition and emulating role models.
Success has many parents, said John Kennedy, but failure is an orphan. Winners believe in catching stars. They’re willing to risk falling down, getting up, and trying again. They keep trying, reaching, doing. People who say it can’t be done shouldn’t get in the way of those who are doing it.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, said that for all who are involved in a race, they do indeed run — but only one receives the prize, so run to win.
And finally, everyone speaks of Neal Berte’s integrity. They say it shines like a beacon and illuminates the way for others to follow. It is the foundation of his being — the outward, invisible sign of his inward and spiritual grace.
Berte’s very existence is a testimony that you can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth. At the end of the Jubilee, Pope John Paul II takes as the theme of his new Encyclical the words of Christ to the Apostles when they were fishing: Duc Altum -- Go deeper.
Dr. Berte’s life reflects a focused, systematic, responsible, and even aggressive concern — a concern for values, for high standards, and impeccable character and integrity. He follows H.G. Wells’ admonition to boldly light the way, with the glowing light of reflection, the searching light of discovery, and the guiding light of values.
In the Funeral Oration, the great Athenian statesman, Pericles said: “For it is only love of honor that never grows old.” And it never does because honor defends, supports, and undergirds all that is noble and worthy — even at times when the cost is high.
For the leader, integrity is the wellspring from which all other attributes flow. It is the most consequential of human qualities because it defines and guarantees all the others.
There is one thing more that is quite fascinating about Neal Berte. Every year, this President sends a questionnaire to all of his board members, the entire faculty, and a random sampling of the student body.
He asks this group to judge him on 38 different questions that cover his: General Administration, Educational Leadership, Student Relations, Personal Leadership, and Professional Leadership.
This is done every year. The results are reviewed by the board’s Personnel Committee. How many CEOs would be willing to go through that sort of an excruciating examination?
For all who find in our work of fund raising a ministry of joy and service, examine and seek for yourself the eight keys to success I have reviewed here.
Measure yourself against these attributes. If you find yourself wanting, or deficient, craft a plan that will enable you to reach to greater heights. Find for yourself mountaintops that you can climb.
For me, I have found the summit. It is Neal Berte. He is touched by greatness.
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