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  James Kimsey
© Nathan Mandell
Founding CEO of AOL, James Kimsey, talks about leadership skills.
Kellogg launches leadership initiative
AOL founder Kimsey wins Kellogg Distinguished Leadership Award; New award emphasizes priority of leadership at Kellogg
By Danielle Tullier

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 and character.”

“If you are a leader of a corporation that’s suddenly laying off thousands of people, there’s no excuse.”

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.”

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University