Lifelong Lessons in Leadership
Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you meet a person who will change your life forever, and only for the better. Dr. James Albrecht is one of those people for me. In the 16 years I’ve known him, he’s become one of my dearest friends and greatest mentors.
I first met Jim through the World Trade Center Institute, of which he is a founding (and continuously active) member. He’s the kind of person you just can’t help but like – kind, caring, charismatic. He’s also a total pro in the world of international business, having served in various executive leadership positions at McCormick, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and the like.
The many lessons I’ve learned from Jim are too numerous to list, so I’ve done my best to narrow them down to ten.
- Be present. Yes, technology is amazing and makes so much more possible than ever before, but there is simply no substitute for actually being with another person – in person.
- Take nothing for granted. Jim was born in Chicago during the Great Depression to loving parents who instilled in him the importance of appreciating what you have. He knows what it is to live with very little. He also understands that the world (and one’s circumstances) can change in the blink of an eye and that abundance is so much more than material things.
- Give what you can. Jim does this in many ways, from the Salvation Army to the Red Cross to the Illinois Institute of Technology. He’s the visionary founder of WTCI’s Albrecht Fellowships for youth and the generous sponsor of at least a dozen international Food Science students at the University of Illinois Urbana. On any given week, you can still find 90-years-young Jim playing the piano for patients and their loved ones at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, which is where he met the incredibly talented Makeda Rose, a local singer who Jim has been supporting and championing for years. I could go on, but I’ll leave you with just one more. Recently, while visiting Jim at his Baltimore condo, I noticed a plaque in the garden recognizing Jim for his 34 years of service to the condominium Board. Giving is clearly in this man’s blood.
- Humility. When I approached Jim about the idea for the Albrecht Fellowships, he was immediately excited, but he didn’t want his name on the program. He wanted the program to stand on its own, without being influenced by its founder. It was a bit of a fight, but I finally convinced him to put his name on it. Many years from now, students will continue to learn about Dr. Albrecht and his guiding principles in life and business.
- Always remember the human element. Jim has had a very successful career in international business. By his count, he’s visited 43 different countries. One of the reasons he was so successful was because he worked to understand the cultural differences of the people he was working with. You can’t treat contract negotiations the same in Japan as in South Africa; a small misunderstanding could lead to disaster. The same can be said outside of the office. The human element always matters.
- You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together. (Thank you, Anthony Bourdain.) The last time my wife and I stopped by to visit Jim, he sent us home with a huge slice of a delicious cherry peach pie he’d made the day before. Food and music have the power to bring people together, and I’ve been treated to many an after-dinner home concert courtesy of Jim and his friends.
- Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing. This isn’t a Jim original, but it’s something he practices, and it’s great advice I try my best to follow.
- Everyone deserves an opportunity. Some of the most capable and talented individuals may come from the most unexpected places and challenging circumstances. Transcripts and resumes mean something, of course, but listen, too, for the fire in their belly.
- Never walk away from an opportunity to learn. As a scientist, I imagine it’s in Jim’s nature to be curious. And it’s infectious! He’s always reading, always learning, and always shows up to our meetings with a briefcase full of interesting articles he’s saved for me. Every time I’m with him, I learn something new.
- Be the best version of yourself you can be. Know your strengths and what sets you apart, and learn to leverage them in life and work (guayabera shirt and all!).
Have you noticed a common theme? As I was writing this, my wife Katie asked me what the biggest and most important lesson of all was that I’d learned from Jim.
The answer was easy: love people.
Jim is a people person, through and through. And we, his friends and family and all those whose lives he’s touched, are the grateful recipients of that love. Because of who he is, every one of us carries a piece of him, his legacy, within us.
Thank you, Jim. For your love, your support, and your example.