President's Message

Great Leaders Seek Excellence and Embrace Authenticity 

It’s early Super Bowl Sunday morning. With the game taking place eight miles from where we live, it’s been hard to avoid all the hoopla. I’ve been on the road for much of the last two weeks, so I haven’t had to deal with the traffic-related issues created by events held all around the San Francisco Bay area. Thankfully, El Nino is not going to rain on our parade today, and the weather is beautiful. Yesterday I told Jeffrey “wouldn’t it be fun to take the train into the City and see all the sights and concerts at Super Bowl City.” Needless to say, he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. So much for looking for excitement; we stayed home and had enough watching our Warriors on TV narrowly beat the Thunder in front of Beyonce and Jay Z courtside.

While I’ve had plenty of excitement the last few weeks, the month of January started off with a terrible loss for those of us in the surety business in the West with the sudden death of Tim Fanto of Zurich. In our last Pipeline I shared as an industry we’d lost three surety individuals way too soon. Now make that four; and, this one was extremely personal for me. Tim Fanto was one of the people in the business I dealt with the most. He was a respected colleague, a good friend and one of the most personable and thoughtful people I’ve ever known in this business. Like the others, Tim will indeed be missed. For more about Tim, read our "In Remembrance" in this issue, by clicking here.
By the time mid-January rolled around, it was time to head for The Beavers in Los Angeles. This year’s Beavers was going to be different. It wasn’t going to be just three days of meetings, cocktail receptions, and dinner parties culminating with a banquet and a bunch of speeches in one of the largest ballrooms in Los Angeles. In late October I’d received a phone call I’d never in a million years expected to receive. The Beavers had graced me with the Golden Beaver Award for Service & Supply to the Construction Industry. The phone call simply took my breath away.
My hope in the 3-5 minutes they give you to speak was to convey the appropriate thanks to the right people, as well as to say something meaningful, while not getting weepy or making a fool out of myself in front of 2,375 people. In the 61 years the Beavers organization has been in existence, only a handful of surety professionals have ever been so honored, so I knew I was also representing our industry as a whole. If you’d like to read a text copy of the speech, click here. Feedback from audience members was consistent: it was authentic and spoken from the heart. I was a little worried about getting emotional, but ended up not being nervous at all. The entire experience was magical. Read how members' see her award as having far-reaching significance, here.  

After the Beavers, my travels took me to Houston to teach at NASBP’s Surety School and then on to Naples to the AGC Risk Management & Surety Bond Conference, where Howard Cowan of the Cowan-Hill Bond Agency and John Welch, President of CNA Surety, and I put on a presentation about surety ethics. When I finally got home in the wee hours Friday morning, I was tired and really glad to finally be home. However, yesterday morning I was still struggling with what to say in this message when something finally resonated. I was sitting at the table in the breakfast nook watching the pre-Super Bowl hype on TV. The night before I’d unpacked my Beavers Trophy, which was now sitting on the coffee table directly in the line of sight of the TV, directly superimposed in front of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, which will be won tonight by either the Denver Broncos or the Carolina Panthers.
Many of you know I was fortunate to marry into a football family. Jeffrey’s Dad’s first job as a NFL coach was as one of Vince Lombardi’s original four assistant coaches. All of his elementary school years were spent in Green Bay where the team won three World Championships, before his Dad became the first head coach of the Atlanta Falcons expansion team, largely on the recommendation of Vince Lombardi. A few years later, Vince helped my father-in-law, Norb Hecker, secure another job with the New York Football Giants. Later he went on to work with another storied coach, Bill Walsh, and earned four Super Bowl rings with the 49ers to accompany his three World Championships as a coach with the Packers and one earned as a rookie on the LA Rams 1951 Championship team.
The stories family members tell of what it was like to be around Vince and Bill during those days go far beyond what the men are known for--culture, discipline, obedience, loyalty, character and teamwork. Their lessons continue to be carried down through our family to this day because Jeffrey & his siblings learned them from their Dad, who learned them from Vince and Bill, as did many others coaching the game of football today. The coaching tree of Bill Walsh alone is over two dozen men coaching today in leadership positions. The way Jeffrey describes it, whether with the coaches or the players, they were a family. They weren’t special people to one another. Their relationships were real and heartfelt.

So what was so special about these two coaches beyond their successful records? Why are they still to this day the two coaches most often listed as #1 and #2 in the all-time history of football? Both men were flawed and far from perfect, just like the rest of us in many ways. I don’t know the answer to this question, but can tell you based on people who knew them well, both were genuine and authentic.

One of Vince’s most famous quotes was: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” One of the signature characteristics of authentic leadership is the ability to speak from the heart. So on a day where we still honor Vince the leader, here are a few thoughts from a collection of leadership experts on ways to be authentic in your leadership and why it’s important:

  • Authentic leaders frame their stories in ways that allow them to see themselves not as passive observers but as individuals who learn from their experiences. These leaders make time to examine their experiences and to reflect on them, and in doing so they grow as individuals and as leaders.
  • Authentic leaders draw their inspiration from their own lives. Anyone can become an authentic leader through hard work and developing their leadership qualities.
  • Authentic leaders work hard at developing self-awareness through persistent and often courageous self-exploration and draw inspiration from their own lives. Denial can be the greatest hurdle that leaders face in becoming self-aware, but authentic leaders ask for, and listen to, honest feedback. They also use formal and informal support networks to help them stay grounded and lead integrated lives.
  • An authentic leader is not afraid to admit mistakes and work to overcome shortcomings. By facing their weaknesses and refusing to compromise with them, authentic leaders can find ways to overcome their weaknesses and this makes them stronger leaders.
  • An authentic leader is more interested in empowering employees than in money or personal power and is guided by compassion and heart in everything they do. They are dedicated to continued personal growth and committed to building lasting relationships and strong organizations.
  • Many people who have studied authenticity in leaders argue achieving business results over a sustained period of time is the ultimate mark of authentic leadership. It may be possible to drive short-term outcomes without being authentic, but authentic leadership is the only way to create long-term results.

Bringing this all full circle, if what people took away from my attempt to say something meaningful in my Beavers speech was a heartfelt appreciation of the recognition, as well as our business, then I’m happy with that. Tim Fanto was an interesting man. He kept his private life and his work lives very separate, yet he was an authentic leader in both. This much was quite clear in what people had to say at his Celebration of Life service. Over and over again people of all ages commented about the thought he put into his relationships with people in this business, as well as into his relationships with family and friends.
Whether we spend our careers working in football or in the surety business, people will take what they learn from us and use the lessons in ways we’ll never realize. I, for one, would be happy to be remembered as authentic.

Susan Hecker is Executive Vice President and National Director of Contract Surety at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in San Francisco, CA. She can be reached at