At a May ceremony honoring exemplary leadership,
the Kellogg School community greeted James V. Kimsey, founding
CEO of America Online, with a standing ovation in Owen L.
Coon Forum — even before he spoke a word into the microphone.
He was, after all, the celebrated guest, accepting
the inaugural Kellogg Award for Distinguished Leadership.
Created by the Office of the Dean and the Kellogg Business
Leadership Club and sponsored by McKinsey & Co., the award
recognizes proven leadership skills and their vital strategic
role in both the business sector and the general community,
while singling out individuals of the “highest caliber
“If you are a leader of a corporation
that’s suddenly laying off thousands of people, there’s
Kimsey’s leadership is most publicly
evident in what he described as a “well-documented story”
of how he steered a struggling 10-person, basement start-up
into a media giant called America Online, now with 15,000
employees and a market capitalization of $100 billion. Since
he became AOL chairman emeritus in 1996, he has dedicated
his leadership skills to more personal pursuits. He campaigns
for displaced peoples as the chairman of the board of Refugees
International and for disadvantaged youth through the efforts
of his own Kimsey Foundation, which seeks to leverage technology
and education to benefit at-risk kids. He has also recently
received the Horatio Alger Award and has earned a place in
the Junior Achievement Hall of Fame.
Kimsey is also involved in international affairs.
In 2001, he was one of five U.S. civilians to accompany President
Bill Clinton to Vietnam. As chairman of the board of Refugees
International, he has visited Bosnia, Timbuktu, and Cambodia
to assess refugee repatriation, land mine removal and other
human rights concerns.
During his address at the award ceremony,
Kimsey recalled how the roots of leadership took form in him.
In particular, he remembered his first day at the United States
Military Academy at West Point, where he learned that there
are only three possible responses to every question: “Yes
sir, no sir, and no excuse sir.”
“It was drilled into me rather forcefully
that there was no excuse,” Kimsey said. “If you
are a leader of a corporation that’s suddenly laying
off thousands of people, there’s no excuse. If there
are things you could have anticipated [to prevent this outcome],
it’s your fault. You’re the leader.”
Kimsey also passed along another West Point
lesson. “Don’t lie, cheat or steal,” he
said, admitting that the advice seemed simple, but noting
that people tend to forget the basic rules.
“Everyone here always admires someone
who tells the truth,” Kimsey noted. “‘What’s
the right thing to do?’ That’s what a leader should
think about,” not just quarterly earnings.
Kellogg School Dean Dipak C. Jain expressed
enthusiasm for the new award, which was established in honor
of Kellogg Dean Emeritus Donald Jacobs. Dean Jain noted that
the award forms part of a larger strategic initiative for
Kellogg, one that emphasizes the “priority of leadership”
and that highlights the importance of vision, strategic insight
and ethics in today’s corporate leaders.
Said Jain: “Leadership represents an
important element not only in today’s corporate world,
but in many other arenas. Through our curriculum, as well
as through seminars, conferences and awards such as this one,
the Kellogg School demonstrates its commitment to building
excellence in this key strategic area.”