Successful developer turns his talents to eradicating poverty

JAMES W. ROUSE: A BUILDER OF DREAMS

June 10, 1991|By LESTER A PICKER

"To see that all poor people in this country have the opportunity for decent, affordable housing within a generation and to work up and out of poverty into the mainstream of American life."

--Enterprise mission statement

There's a war raging in every community in the United States, as non-profit organizations fight to stay alive. On a battlefield marked by massive federal, state and local budget cuts, intense competition for every available dollar and volunteer has killed or wounded many non-profit organizations.

Recently, I had a chance to re-explore how leadership can affect the outcome of these battles. Sitting in the cavernous Baltimore Convention Center with 2,200 others, I watched John Akers, chief executive officer of IBM, present one of the most prestigious awards in America to a local hero. The Alexis DeTocqueville Award is given each year by United Way of America to an individual whose life's work exemplifies the spirit of volunteerism in America. This year that award went to James W. Rouse, successful developer and builder of dreams.

Every speaker praised Mr. Rouse as a visionary. Yet, the word visionary often evokes images of an academic, sitting in his book-lined office, pondering how the world could be different. Visionary is not adequate to describe Jim Rouse.

Rouse's wife, Patty, and his associates were filled with pride at the awards ceremony: pride in the man, pride in his work and, most importantly, pride in themselves. For each has been touched by this extraordinary man and has come away better for it. And that's because Jim Rouse is a Leader.

In an age when we mourn the lack of great leadership, Rouse is the exception. Wildly successful as developer of Columbia, and of downtown marketplaces such as Harborplace in Baltimore and Faneuil Hall in Boston, Rouse "retired" to begin his second career as chief executive officer of The Enterprise Foundation and its many subsidiaries. Few people could make the transition from the for-profit world to the non-profit world as well as Rouse.

With a large and growing body of research focused on the importance of leadership in the non-profit world, what lessons can we learn about leadership from examining Rouse's management style? While Rouse exemplifies many qualities of leadership excellence, he also exhibits qualities that can be maddeningly frustrating.

* Vision. Experts agree that the most critical characteristic of good leaders is that they have a vision for the future of both their organizations and themselves. Few good leaders have the coherent vision that Rouse does. Speaking of his work with low-income housing, he says, "The deplorable conditions these people live in are correctable. It may take 10 or 15 years to get to our goals, but within five years we should begin to see indices of change . . . reduced unemployment, decreased teen-age pregnancy, high improvement of kids in school. Then we can duplicate this in cities throughout this country."

* Values. Tom Watson, the legendary founder of IBM, said it best. "For any organization to survive and achieve success, there must be a sound set of principles on which it bases all of its policies and actions. But more important is its faithful adherence to those principles."

Paul Brophy, vice chair of The Enterprise Foundation, points to several Rouse values that infuse the entire organization. "Jim is able to combine his vision with the essential belief that people are good." The redeeming nature of hard work is another value espoused by Rouse, to which his in

famous long workdays attest.

Striving for excellence has become one of the most overused and underperformed phrases in corporate America. Not so at The Enterprise Foundation. Rouse's own motto, "Everything Matters," helps everyone strive to do their best and be their best. This latter point is often missed by non-profits who are frequently focused on helping their clients at the expense of their own staff. At Enterprise, Rouse has built up a culture of caring. New staff go through an orientation period that includes time spent alone with Jim and Patty. The vision is held up as a beacon for all to see. Talented people know that they can advance to any position with the organization.

* Persistence. It is often said that one doesn't have to be smart to be successful in this country, one must be persistent. He is both.

If there is one trait that critics of Rouse seize on, it is his dogged persistence. Some refer to this trait as extreme naivete. Others winked and told me that Rouse is "naive like a fox." Either way, good leaders have the self-discipline to keep the organization on course through the myriad obstacles to the larger vision.

Bart Harvey, vice chair of The Enterprise Foundation, said of Rouse's persistence: "If something doesn't work out, he doesn't stay down long. He tries another approach. Out of this persistence we've often seen miracles come."

(In next week's column, we'll look at other characteristics of effective non-profit leadership as exemplified by Rouse and The Enterprise Foundation.)

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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