Q & A

Do leaders need to be authentic?

Roger Brown is the president of the Berklee College of Music. He previously cofounded Bright Horizons, a childcare provider that grew into a billion-dollar, publicly traded company, and ran relief operations in Asia and Africa. He talks about lessons he’s learned from these leadership experiences—including the importance of authenticity and the value of a little music.


Q: What is leadership?

At its most fundamental, leadership is bringing together a group of people and instilling in them a sense of purpose around some objective. What makes good leaders and the reason leadership is so hard to define is that a lot of it has to do with the authenticity of the leader. One of the big tropes is to say, let's look at how Sam Walton led Wal-Mart so others can be like Sam Walton. But the reason it worked for him was that he was being Sam Walton. In the music world, one of the things artists always talk about is having an authentic voice. There would be nothing worse than if a young Bob Dylan tried to sound like James Taylor, or vice versa.

Q: But there is often a period of imitation…

Absolutely, and you need to develop skill sets that are more universal. But I think what differentiates someone who is ultimately able to be successful from someone who remains an imitator is that willingness at some point to say, "I'm Bob Dylan. This is what I sound like."

Q: Is a willingness to get in over your head at some point necessary to developing authenticity?

That's a good question. I immediately think of sports analogs—the basketball player who always wants to take the last shot. There probably is something to that. Is the person willing to say, "I can do that," even though all the evidence might suggest they're not ready to?

Q: What background did you have before leading the Land Bridge food distribution operation run by CARE and UNICEF in Cambodia?

One of the wonderful but terrifying things about international development, when we were doing that work in the 1980s, is that you almost never had any background of any relevance. The theory has evolved and there are more experienced people now, but I'd been a math teacher in Kenya for a year and I had one year of management school under my belt. I really didn't have a lot of experience. In the first six months, I learned six years worth of lessons. Fortunately, I was paired with a very wise and experienced man from the Philippines who worked for UNICEF.

Q: What were the key challenges, and what sort of leadership skills did you develop in that time?

The key challenge to doing relief and development work in Cambodia in 1980 was knowing what was going on. It was such a confusing place. The Vietnamese were effectively running Cambodia but the refugee camps were controlled by guerrilla resistance movements that were fighting the Vietnamese and sometimes each other. Then you had all of the relief agencies with their various leadership structures. Some things happened that were planned and strategic; many were just random and made no sense. My wife and I ended up writing a book about it; only after that did we feel that we had begun to make sense out of it. Even then I continued to reflect on that time. We always look for logical explanations even if they may not be there.

Q: I assume that you had to make choices without full and clear information?

We had oil all over our windshield, but that's where you go back to the purpose—what are we trying to achieve? From there, it's like the old game of "hot or cold." We make a decision and figure out if we are getting hotter or colder. There was a lot of experimentation and many incremental steps to test ideas. The big problem we faced was that the system that had been used to distribute food aid to refugees went through the guerrilla resistance leadership. We believed that they were stealing between 70% and 90%. Some people argued that even the stolen food got into the marketplace, helping to lower the overall price of food, but it was empowering the wrong people and disempowering those we intended to help. We tried multiple experiments to get the food directly to the refugees. Of course, the guerrilla leadership did not want to relinquish that control and with the advantage of a lot more cultural knowledge they were actively trying to sabotage what we were doing, but we eventually prevailed through lots of small experiments and a number of failures.

Q: How did music play into the work?

When you're around people who don't have the essentials of shelter and food and water, you appreciate those basics so much, but I also found that human interaction—culture and music—is really important too, and maybe more important in the developing world than in the developed world. I would learn a local folk song to sing with the people I was working with. They would always be so amazed that I knew the song. It was just an amazingly effective way to relate to people at a deeper level. I think it recognizes that well-being is not just food and water. Relating around music and culture builds trust. It's a way of showing respect for the culture as opposed to assuming that because it was a culture in crisis, there wasn't any kind of underlying value to the culture.

Q: How do trust, respect, and a deeper connection tie into leadership?

I think you've got to have trust. People have to believe you know what you're doing, that you have their best interests at heart. When I was a young entrepreneur, I put so much primacy on the strength and power of relationships and being trusted and respected. But these days I try to say less about that and just let the results speak for themselves. There's really something magical that happens when you collect the right people, get them focused on the right objective, and make sure the evidence of the achievement is obvious, so that instead of needing affirmation from the leaders, people derive satisfaction from their own accomplishment. Again, if you think of a sports analogy, it's a question of whether the coach is the one from whom the players take their satisfaction, or whether they derive their satisfaction from playing well.

Q: After a number of years in relief and development work, you returned to the U.S. and started Bright Horizons. How did that happen?

My wife and I had just come back from starting up the program for Save the Children in the Sudan. We wanted to do something entrepreneurial. We were getting ready to start our own family and had an intrinsic interest in early childhood education. A friend of ours had the idea. He had been on the waiting list of a childcare center for over a year. It was really good and may have been worth waiting for, but he couldn't find alternatives. He had been reading in the newspapers about some employers who had set up childcare centers for their employees. The idea was that you could actually commute with your child; if the child got sick, you could be there in a heartbeat to take them home. You could get to know the teachers better. You could get to know the other parents better. It just seemed like a fantastic idea. I would say if there is one consistency to my career, it's that I've done things that were really interesting and inspiring to me. From there, the ability to convince other people to believe in them is quite easy because I don't have to gin up enthusiasm; it's just there. Once we had the idea, we dug in. The main thing I learned was perseverance. We had five difficult years where it wasn't clear whether the business was going to survive. There was evidence to show that that onsite childcare would help employees be more productive and more loyal to the organization. But even if it made a lot of sense, no one was doing it. If we were motivated just by financial success, I don't think we would have persevered but we really believed in the larger social value of the effort.

Q: You've created and led organizations in a variety of settings and sectors. Which aspects of leadership are consistent across the sectors and what might be unique to the nonprofit or the for-profit worlds?

My personal view is that we make too much of the differences between sectors. I think there is more variation within sectors than there is across sectors. Running the Department of Human Services for a state and commanding an aircraft carrier are both public sector functions, but my guess is that they are pretty different, whereas running a biotech company and heading the research arm of a major university might have a lot in common. In Sudan, we started the Save the Children program. We didn't have contact with the home office every day or even every week. We faced the challenges that an entrepreneur faces, which is the big bang of creating an institution. In the Sudan, we got to decide where we were going to work, what our function would be. We got to hire the team, pick the office, all those things. And with Bright Horizons, we went through the same process. In that way, there was a lot of similarity. But that's not sectoral; that's a startup.

Q: Were there aspects of Bright Horizons that were new in terms of leadership challenges?

I went through the single biggest leadership evolution of my career in the early days of Bright Horizons. We had these investors who had put in a couple million dollars. That seemed like so much money that it led me to be way too deferential. We had a crisis about four years in. The investor whose advice I had followed most closely—at times even when I didn't think he was right—thought that we should be fired. It dawned on me that when things didn't go right, he wasn't willing to step up and say, "That was my idea, and it wasn't a good idea." I realized I had been behaving as if he was the chairman and I was working for him. He wanted me to be the leader and argue with him, push back. I decided that from that moment on I was only going to do things that I totally believed in, even if it meant saying to the board member who had invested millions of dollars, "I'm not going to do what you asked me to do and here's why." And I think it made me a stronger leader. And I think it gave the board more confidence in my leadership.

Q: And then you made a leap to Berklee. What was the transition?

Before this, I'd always started up organizations. Now, I've joined an institution started by the Berk family, run by the father and then the son. It is very established with a strong culture and reputation. Some of my friends thought I was out of my mind. Higher education has many wonderful qualities, but being entrepreneurial, innovative, and moving quickly don't tend to be among them. But Berklee has always been iconoclastic. It was founded in 1945 to teach jazz, which was a radical idea. I was drawn to the place and intuitively felt like it could work. And it has. It's been a great experience for me, and I think I've been a good president for the institution. I didn't have the original idea but I feel just as much ownership and investment in it as if I had. And that's an interesting thing about human nature. That's part of what I think a leader learns over time: that if you get people to care about the purpose, all the other stuff doesn't matter so much. People can be enormously motivated to do the right thing, if they just know what the right thing is.

President, Berklee College of Music