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News and Events

Larry Gies challenges students to ‘trust your voice’ to have an impact

Nov 1, 2021, 08:48 by Aaron Bennett
At the 25th anniversary of the Leighton Lecture on Ethics and Leadership, Larry Gies (ACCY ‘88) challenged young executives to trust their voice early in their careers when faced with ethical issues or leadership opportunities.

At the 25th anniversary of the Leighton Lecture on Ethics and Leadership, Larry Gies (ACCY ‘88) challenged young executives to trust their voice early in their careers when faced with ethical issues or leadership opportunities.

“Most of the great business pivots come from a young person who says, ‘This doesn’t seem right. I don’t feel comfortable. Why don’t we try a different way?’” said Gies, founder of Madison Industries, one of the largest and most successful privately held companies in the world.

“It's those people who have been around for a while who will let something slip by,” he added. “And there's always a young person or two around who raises the red flag and says ‘Here's a problem’. True leadership is about listening to others and making decisions based on diverse perspectives.”

Hosted by Gies College of Business and the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the virtual event drew more than 850 students. It is part of Business 101, the College’s signature class for first-year students on professional responsibility and leadership.

Gies used the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in 2020 as an example of young voices pushing our country to address violence based on bias and discrimination. It was a number of young people in his company and in the classroom who helped him address these issues head-on to find peaceful and meaningful ways to bring equity to all.

“I find it’s the younger voices that push us,” Gies said. “We flipped the common thinking in our company from ‘If you believe, you belong’ to starting with ‘You belong, regardless of your beliefs.’ Our strength lies in our differences, and this helps us make the world safer, healthier and more productive.”

And then he challenged the students to have the courage to step up and be heard within their organizations.

“Don't ever think you don't have the right to say something when you know it doesn't feel right – because if it doesn't feel right, guess what, it's probably not right,” he said. “Make sure you raise that red flag. Make sure when there's a leadership opportunity, you step up. Don't worry about your age. Don't worry about experience. Trust your voice, have an impact on the world, and beautiful things will happen.”

The Leighton Lecture was held on Oct. 26, the fourth anniversary of the naming of Gies College of Business. Larry Gies and his wife Beth pledged a $150 million on that date in 2017 to accelerate progress toward Gies being recognized as the best and most innovative business school on the planet.

“At Gies, we believe that a strong foundation in ethics and leadership is a critical piece of the educational experience and that it's essential to enable our students to follow their passion and bring value to society through business,” said Jeffrey R. Brown, the Josef and Margot Lakonishok Professor of Business and Dean of Gies College of Business.

The Leighton Lecture on Ethics and Leadership is made possible through the generous contribution of alumni Richard (Dick) and Grace Leighton 25 years ago. It is an annual opportunity for Gies students and faculty, along with other campus and community members, to hear distinguished perspectives on the critical nature of ethics and leadership in today’s world. As a business leader himself, Gies alumnus Dick Leighton saw the positive consequences of business dealings conducted with a strong sense of professional responsibility and ethical leadership.  He also saw the negative consequences to individuals and organizations when that was not the case.

Dick’s commitment is to be sure future generations of students hear from business leaders who conduct their business in an ethical manner and learn what it means to take the high road and to practice professional responsibility in their lives. That’s what the Leighton Lecture on Ethics and Leadership is all about, and that’s why Dick asked that this opportunity be incorporated into Gies’ signature class on professional responsibility and leadership— Business 101.