A reverend. An FBI Director. A Fortune 1000 CEO. A British Prime Minister. Four individuals representing widely different aspects of life: spirituality, law and order, business, politics. The above represents the role models of leadership identified by some of today’s most skilled security professionals — the men and women identified last month by this magazine as the Most Influential People in Security 2020.

Who better to opine on leadership than this cohort of security professionals? I asked some of this year’s Most Influential People in Security to identify a role model or mentor, essential element of leadership, or a personal example of leadership in which they take pride. The results speak volumes about the qualities that the best leaders strive for.  Yet, at the same time, the answers all punctuate how elusive a concept leadership is and illustrate how difficult it is to get to the core of leadership. They enumerated a total of 18 complementary and often-overlapping qualities, but in only a few cases did any two of them use the same word.

And not even the best leaders have all these characteristics, all the time. Few responses even mentioned security. No one invoked business acumen, critical thinking, or even organizational status or hierarchical authority per se. Every response pertains to emotional intelligence and credibility.

Merely cobbling together the ideal leader from the responses would yield someone with a strong ethical and moral core; someone who is honest, transparent and articulates a strong vision. That leader would balance a bias for action with a mentality of continuous learning. He or she would be unwavering on moral or ethical matters, yet have an open ear and remain collaborative and flexible in an attempt to build consensus. Courageous yet humble, the ideal leader would inspire staff by fostering diversity of thought and speaking truth to power.

However, fewer than one in five organizations say that their leaders are very effective at achieving business goals or at developing new leaders, according to Brandon Hall Group research. Can any leader meet the standard collectively generated by this year’s most influential professionals?

Elon Musk and Steve Jobs transformed technology and society, but both have been criticized for abusing their staff. General Douglas McArthur staged a successful Pacific campaign giving the Allies the upper hand during World War II, but critics say he abandoned his troops, leaving them to the ravages of the Bataan death march.

There is no magic person with all these characteristics. Everyone is flawed. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the most of our leaders or expect the most of ourselves. So who did our influencers identify?

Eric Sean Clay chose Steve D. Edwards, the CEO of his former employer, CoxHealth. “From our first interaction,” Eric said, “I recognized Steve could inspire others through the strength of his words. He was able to convey a powerful vision by weaving messages into stories he told.” And they weren’t hollow words. He called out price-gouging of PPE, failure of officials to support masks and social distancing, and the dire need to invest in space and equipment to deal with COVID-19. “Steve once told me that ‘everything is an ethical decision,” Clay continued. “His actions set the standard I try to follow every day.”

Joyce Hunter, executive director of the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, identified exemplary leaders in her spiritual, personal and professional life, including the pastor of her church, who inspired her to create her philanthropic foundation.

Acknowledging that his choice would be controversial, McAfee’s William Woods lauded former FBI Director James Comey. He was “the mentor who highlighted the importance of being tough but kind and confident but humble,” Woods said. “He holds leaders accountable and truly cares for his people.”

In 2017, Inc. magazine published the result of a survey in which entrepreneurs were asked to identify the single most important leadership quality. The winner was…positivity. A word that didn’t come up in any of our responses. Maybe we should define leadership like Potter Stewart defined pornography in the U.S. Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964): “I know it when I see it.”

Kirsten Provence, Boeing: Listening to your team, your stakeholders and customers. You can’t formulate a strategy if you don’t know where you’re going and it’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t listen to what is needed.

Peggy O’Neill, International Security Foundation: My leadership mantra has always been, “Through courage and humility, you gain wisdom.” I have found that the most effective collaborative leadership style combines the courage to take risks with the ability to recognize that there are often smarter subject matter experts around the table.  

Paul Timm, Facility Engineering Associates: An effective leader personally demonstrates and corporately fosters a tone of stability. Whether operating with confidence on a daily basis or exhibiting coolness under pressure, a good leader has a calming influence on people and circumstances. In a day of unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, this kind of leader stands in marked contrast.

Mark Reed, Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital: I believe the most important element of leadership is to leverage employees’ strengths and provide development opportunities/coaching to improve on their weaknesses. We focus a lot of effort on continuous training and learning so the entire team can grow and become better. I feel this creates cohesion, better outcomes, reduces turnover and improves quality.

Kristine Raad, Owens Corning: In light of the ongoing pandemic, I have had the opportunity to reflect on those leadership characteristics I consider to be most important during times of crisis. From my perspective, good leadership is about who you are, and your ability to adhere to guiding principles that will enable you to do what is right, regardless of circumstances or consequences. This, combined with the ability to see beyond the immediate situation and to build trust and consensus to drive decisive action, are critical leadership capabilities.

Rebecca Morgan, Center for Development of Security Excellence: The most successful security leaders encourage not only diversity of the workforce (in race, gender, orientation, ability, religious and socio-economic background) but true diversity of thought. Leaders that consider differing perspectives, respect the expertise, and make decisions based on facts are the most effective. True leadership speaks truth to power, considers long-range impacts and unintended consequences, and will sacrifice short term or personal gain for the greater good. I’ve been lucky to work under several such leaders throughout my career.

Paul Lanois, Fieldfisher: The principle that I consider to be a key element of leadership is to make sure you adopt the right mindset for the job. As a security professional, the priority should always be to learn and grow as technology evolves, and also to shift from being “simply” an enforcer to instead be a collaborative and flexible partner to the business you serve. In order to be really effective, it is important to adapt to new situations and also be able to show how mitigating digital risk, and ensuring privacy and security, can add value to the business.

Kurt John, Siemens USA: I believe values are the essence of strong leadership. Being a leader is difficult, and you’re faced with difficult and urgent decisions nearly every day. Navigating those decisions while protecting and empowering your teams is one of the most important parts of being a leader. Identifying your values and holding them dear simplifies your decision making and always orients you towards a future of empowerment and trust. It’s quite liberating for both leaders and their teams. The values I live by are transformation (improvement), collaboration, integrity and respect.

Joyce Hunter, The Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology: Transparency and trust – adopting a posture of communication, collaboration and coordination throughout the organization vertically and horizontally.


What do you consider to be a notable personal leadership moment?

Paul Goldenberg, Cardinal Point Strategies: In the aftermath of some the Europe’s worst terrorist attacks (e.g. Charlie Hebdo), fear and confusion paralyzed many. I had the privilege to watch members of our team previously trained by us be deployed to these volatile events. Their presence and actions on the ground as facilitators were greatly valued by their governments which, in turn, reassured us that our leadership efforts were making a positive impact.

Joyce Hunter: Coordinating the international roll out and implementation of Lotus Notes – 46 countries in 12 months for Ernst and Young LLP and Ernst and Young International and creating a “follow the sun” customer support model.


Who is a leader who mentored you or otherwise left a major impression on you?

Joyce Hunter: Spiritually – Reverend Dr. William J. Shaw – the pastor of the White Rock Baptist Church, where I grew up and developed my advocacy and philanthropic foundation. Personally – My parents who always encouraged me to never stop learning. Professionally – Khalid Shaheed – my mentor when I first started my professional career and how to navigate in a predominately white male organization; and Mary Walker – who shared her knowledge of the federal healthcare system, encouraged me to become an entrepreneur and helped me get my first contract.

Eric Sean Clay, Hermann Memorial Health System: One leader that has left a lasting impression on me is Steve D. Edwards, the President and CEO of CoxHealth. Steve is responsible for the daily operations of CoxHealth, a multi-billion-dollar health system in Springfield, MO. Although I had held leadership positions in a number of different industries, my introduction to healthcare security began in late 2014, when I was selected as the System Director of Public Safety for CoxHealth.

From our first interaction, I recognized that Steve could inspire others through the strength of his words. He was able to convey a powerful vision by weaving messages into the stories he told. I was also able to immediately see how much he cared about the organization, the employees, and the community we served. From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Steve was a passionate, vocal advocate for the community. Despite the fact that his message was not always received with approval, he didn’t hesitate to share his thoughts on issues from price-gouging of PPE, to a reluctance of some elected officials to support social distancing and masking ordinances, to the need for additional space and equipment to treat the eventual rise in patients. His leadership during this time resulted in EM Docs, an association of 22,000 emergency room physicians, to name him as the “Best Hospital Administrator” in the United States, when it comes to proactively responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. When other systems were laying off or furloughing employees, Steve took a different path, arguing that we need to retain employees to help provide care to patients when the pandemic is over. Steve’s compelling argument also led to area businesses donating the funds to build a 55-bed COVID-19 unit at one of the hospitals.

Steve once told me that “everything is an ethical decision.” He is also modeled that philosophy by making difficult decisions that although sometimes were costly, were always the right ones. His actions set the standard that I try to follow every day. Even though I no longer work for CoxHealth, his words continue to guide my actions in my private and professional life.

William Woods, McAfee: Former FBI Director James Comey is the mentor who highlighted the importance of being “Tough but Kind” and “Confident but Humble” leadership traits to me.  He holds leaders accountable and truly cares for his people. I realize he has become a somewhat controversial political figure but I know he loves our country and the people in it.  He was put in a “lose-lose” situation prior to the 2016 Presidential election, and he was smart enough to know it.  He told me always be truthful to the American people and hope in time the truth will vindicate your actions.