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November 16, 2007

Time Warner Chief Executive Gives Candid Advice on Leadership

As part of the Silfen Leadership Series, Richard Parsons spoke on risk taking, accountability and highly publicized CEO resignations.

Before a standing-room-only crowd on November 15, Richard Parsons invoked the words of Yogi Berra to emphasize the importance of stepping up and taking charge: “If you don’t know where you’re going, chances are you’ll wind up somewhere else.”

The Time Warner chairman and CEO continued in a manner of warmth and good humor, encouraging a Columbia Business School audience to be the kind of leaders who know what they want to achieve, are bold enough to put forth their ideas and are prepared to tell other people: “Here’s where we ought to go.”

Although he said leadership is not easily taught but rather learned through experience, Parsons offered an outline of its major components, including the ability to communicate effectively, empower others, take personal responsibility and act with integrity.

“If at the end of the day, at a minimum, you make decisions that are consistent with your sense of self, you certainly sleep easier,” he said. “Being in a position of leadership doesn’t absolve you from doing what you know is right.”

The third guest speaker in the Silfen Leadership Series for this academic year, Parsons delivered a message that focused on humility and the values of good management.

“The way he related leadership to people was very simple. He boiled it down to the basics and had the spark to inspire people,” said event coordinator Kashif Raza '08. “Not everything is about numbers, it’s also about relationships.”

Parsons kept his remarks brief, devoting half the allotted time to fielding student questions. His responses addressed topics including corporate responsibility, philanthropy, his formative challenges and how people can be crippled by the fear of failure.

“Fear stops people from taking the risks they should be taking. The reality is, failure is not evil,” he said, noting that going into the business world was his third choice for a career path, after he failed to become a musician.

He also answered a question regarding the recent departure of top-level executives in the financial arena, describing Citigroup CEO Charles Prince’s resignation as an example of necessary accountability in leadership. “Someone had to take responsibility. Chuck took the hit. He did what he thought was the honorable thing,” he said.

Parsons’s diverse career has included positions as managing partner in New York law firm Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler and as chairman and CEO of Dime Bank. He has also served in state and federal government, as counsel for Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York and as a senior White House aide under President Gerald Ford.

He joined Time Warner as president in 1995. He will be stepping down as CEO at the end of this calendar year but will retain the position of chairman.

Past speakers in the Silfen Lecture Series have included Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase; Carly Fiorina, formerly of Hewlett-Packard; Jack Welch, formerly of General Electric; and Admiral Robert Harward of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, among others.