Keynote speakers at business and charity events walk a fine line. On the one hand, their message needs to be relevant and meaningful. On the other, they can’t drone on so long that attendees start checking their watches or plotting the fastest escape route to the valet line. Tuesday night, Carla Harris—vice chairman, managing director, and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley—walked the line perfectly when she addressed the Dallas Women’s Foundation Leadership Forum & Awards Dinner.
Harris, who was appointed by President Obama in 2013 to chair the National Women’s Business Council, told the dinner’s 850 attendees at the Omni Dallas Hotel that “you take your life from success to significance when you do things for other people.” And doing for others through leadership, she added, is “all about the letters in the word ‘leader.’ ” Then she proceeded to tick off the word’s six letters, attaching a nugget of wisdom to each one.
“L is for ‘leverage,’ ” Harris began. “You need to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, and leverage other people’s ideas. E is for ’empower.’ A leader must define what success looks like for [her people], even when you’re operating in an obscure environment. A is for ‘authentic.’ Authenticity is at the heart of your power, and at the heart of powerful leadership. If you’re authentic, people will trust you, and it will motivate and inspire others to be authentic, too.
“D is for ‘decisive’ and ‘diversity,'” she went on, first explaining the decisive part. “Meg Whitman, when she was at eBay, said, ‘The price of inaction is greater than the price of making a mistake.’ Make people know that you are decisive!” As for diversity, Harris said, “We are all competing around innovation. To be innovative, you need a lot of different ideas in the room. You need a lot of perspectives. You need a lot of experience. So, you need a lot of different people. There’s the business argument for diversity!
“E is for ‘engage,'” Harris continued. “You must engage your people. You can’t motivate by fear. This is especially true for women and millennials. What motivates them? You need to ask, ‘What’s your experience? What’s the stretch experience you’re looking for?'”
Finally, Harris said, “R is for ‘risk.’ You must be comfortable taking risks. The way to differentiate yourself is to show that you’re comfortable taking risks. Why don’t we take more risks? Because we’re scared. Fear. And fear has no place in your success equation. If you’re not sure about trying something, always default to the try.”