Why overcoming challenges is key to effective leadership & entrepreneurial breakthroughs

Editor's Note: Below is a Q&A with Timothy J. McClimon is president of the American Express Foundation and vice president for Corporate Social Responsibility, American Express. Read more about the Ashoka American Express Emerging Innovators Bootcamp on the 2014 Emerging Innovators Campaign site.

Innovation demands strong leadership, and leadership demands a unique set of skills and learning. Helping emerging entrepreneurs overcome obstacles can be the difference between an abandoned project and a groundbreaking solution. 

What advice and guidance can we give to young innovators to help them stick to their ideas and lead others through otherwise challenging times? Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation and vice president for Corporate Social Responsibility at American Express, offers his perspective from his experience guiding American Express’s leadership development in the nonprofit and social sectors.

What do you see as the biggest stumbling block to emerging leaders? How can overcoming this obstacle be beneficial to both leadership and entrepreneurial development?

Unfortunately, I think the most significant barrier for emerging leaders is their lack of access to capital.  At the end of the day, this is what allows an entity—whether it’s an individual entrepreneur, nonprofit or business—to accomplish what it sets out to do. Without it, you don’t have the backing to take risks, develop new ideas or test new markets. You are left continuously playing catch up instead of having the freedom and ability to at a minimum meet demand, let alone be ahead of the curve and truly innovate. 

Getting capital seems to be a ubiquitous issue for emerging leaders and nonprofits across sectors. They are operating in a different environment. Unlike small businesses that may be able to access loans, and large companies, like American Express, that can rely on credit, many nonprofits are stymied in their development because of a lack of a capital. 

The good news here is that emerging leaders can develop the critical skill of finding, attracting and retaining investors. In addition to calculated risk-taking, it’s a skill that requires both creative and strategic thinking to navigate the current investment landscape where there is a wide range of sources, approaches and organizational structures one can leverage.

Which attributes are the essential—but perhaps overlooked—attributes that good leaders must have?

I think the most important and relevant attribute for today’s fast paced world is the ability to balance being both focused and flexible, and knowing when to use each. In order to lead others down a clear path and to accomplish desired outcomes, you must be laser focused on a small set of goals and objectives. However, this focus shouldn’t compromise a leader’s ability to react to opportunities and circumstances that can yield new and, perhaps, better results.

Successful leaders—across all sectors—need to be the eyes and ears of their organization and see the big picture without being all over the map. It’s essentially about seeing the forest for the trees. Rigidity is not an attribute—it can in fact be a liability in today’s marketplace.

You note the importance of financial capital, but how can a young leader learn to leverage other kinds of capital, for example, intellectual, spiritual, social, material, living, cultural and experiential? How should we encourage a young leader with capital in these other spaces but not as much financial capital to leverage the resources they do have?

I think Clara Miller, President of Nonprofit Finance Fund, summarizes it well when she outlines the three key factors-mission, organizational capacity and capital structure- that need to interact in order to sustain a healthy organization over time.  All of these are salient to social entrepreneurs today.

With so much work happening in the social innovation space it's critical to start any effort with a clear and relevant mission.  Once a mission is established, there should be a steadfast commitment to it, allowing it to help guide all strategic, structural and financial decisions.  Organizational capacity and a focus on developing leaders that can execute a comprehensive business plan while also motivating staff and establishing a healthy culture is what follows. Without strong organizational capacity it's virtually impossible to truly make a mission come to life. And, finally as I mentioned earlier, capital structure is needed to actualize what essentially started as just another good idea.

What assets are available to young leaders today that weren't 10, 20 or 50 years ago? What are some examples of best practices regarding making use of these new resources?

The obvious but truly differentiating resource is of course, technology.  Young leaders today have access to every bit of data and information that can help fuel new ideas and inform existing ones.  From information on social issues and gaps to new market and competitor data, everyone has the information they need at their fingertips. But, the liability in this new equation is just that-virtually everyone has access to that same information.  Young leaders need to know how to strategically leverage technology as the resource it can be. Otherwise, it's really easy to be distracted or get lost in information overload.

Many colleges and universities are offering degrees or certificates in leadership, entrepreneurship and other similar programs. In your opinion, are these things one can learn in the classroom?  Do you believe these to be useful, and if so, how?

I'm an adjunct professor and teach nonprofit leadership and management, so full disclosure that I may have a bias here. But yes, I do think that if we allow the real world to enter the classroomthese are areas that can be taught.  So, how can higher-ed add value in a world where all information is available online? As someone who has taught before and after the technology boom, I've seen and have tried to live up to a real shift in what it means to teach in today's world. Much like a museum curator, my job is to sift through all of the noise that exists and identify what can be trusted and what is most relevant for up and coming leaders. From there, I help them to synthesize information by facilitating and eliciting meaningful dialogue that is pertinent to the careers ahead of them. My hope is that all of the leaders in my classes take away the ability to read and pick out important information in a different and more effective way.