The ingredients of leadership

Oct 23, 2009

Dr. David Strubler and Dr. Andy Borchers of the Business Department co-author a series of interviews with prominent organizational leaders that reveal the hidden but all-important ingredients of successful and ethical leadership.

The landscape of corporate leadership in U.S. industry is littered with the corpses of companies dismantled and dissected by greed, ego and, well, just plain stupidity. The names of Enron and Tyco have now broached the realm of cliché—the mere mention of these former industry giants suggests all that is wrong with corporate America and the individuals entrusted to lead these hulking ships safely from port to port.

But hidden in the haziness of unethical leadership exists a few individuals who have guided their organizations to unprecedented growth and opportunity while maintaining a high moral balance between life and work. Dr. David Strubler and Dr. Andy Borchers of Kettering University’s Business Dept., along with colleague Dr. Ben Redekop of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA, highlight several organizational leaders in a series of interviews, one of which recently appeared in the highly regarded “Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship” (

Specifically, their first article, titled “From Corporate to Entrepreneurial Executive: A Conversation with Dave Emmett,” focuses on Kettering/GMI alumnus Dave Emmett, who graduated from the institution in 1967. As a cooperative education student, Emmet began working at General Motors (GM) in 1961 and after graduation rose through the ranks to become plant manager in the Hydramatic Division.

But as the authors note, Emmett made a dramatic career change at the age of 39 and became an entrepreneur. Emmett established several enterprises, one of which is Superior Controls, a $20 million a year global provider of industrial automation and control solutions, factory information, asset management and conveyance systems, as well as specialized capital equipment ( Additionally, Emmett created RJ Helicopters and Plymouth Orchards and Cider Mill. These organizations, which are all based in Michigan, represent what Strubler termed Emmett’s “diverse interests.”

What struck Strubler, Borchers and Redekop about Emmett’s successful leadership of his companies is the way Emmett integrated a contingency approach to leading business teams with a high degree of principled ethics. Emmett believed whole heartedly in the power of teamwork and in the idea that one can inspire people to become caring individuals by modeling the proper behavior.

 “He really had the guts to go out and take some significant risks, but in doing this, he wanted to engage employees in an ethical manner and motivate them properly,” Strubler said. “He always had an entrepreneurial sort of spirit and exceptional focus on the importance of teamwork,” he added.

According to a transcript of this interview, Emmett believed that a quality leader is “a person who stimulates others to follow—but a successful leader is a person who does a few more things than that. He obviously creates a clear and inspiring vision of the future. His skill at crystallizing that vision and adapting it so that the people he is working with understand clearly and get excited by and inspired by (it)—that vision is the asset of a great leader.”

Perhaps one of Emmett’s most lasting interests was his work with the nonprofit organization Children International (, an organization that strives to help children around the world overcome the burdens of poverty to become healthy, educated, self-sustaining and contributing members of society. Borchers noted that Emmett’s desire to help this organization is yet another demonstration of his “commitment to serving humanity through philanthropic efforts. It clearly shows another important dimension to his life.  Dave shows that one can ‘do well’ and ‘do good’ at the same time."

 Strubler said that this series of interviews is in part a response to the increasing number of problems developing in leadership among U.S. companies for the past several years. He and his colleagues wanted to engage in research that examines the issue of unethical leadership and try to identify those traits of ethical leadership that lead to corporate and professional success. By doing this, they hope to help their students understand the importance of their actions in the corporate environment.

“Between Andy Borchers, Ben Redekop and myself, we’ve interviewed about six leaders,” he said. “Dave Emmett was an original. He was a visionary who truly cared for people and children, and had a strong desire to help them succeed,” he added.

Unfortunately, Emmett lost a battle to cancer a few years ago, but his legacy of ethical leadership continues today. By staying focused on the importance of developing employees and teamwork through an ethical approach that places a high value on all staff members, Superior Controls achieved productivity gains of more than 250 percent. As a result, the company continues to be successful.

To learn more about this series of leadership interviews, contact Dr. David Strubler at (810) 762-7479, or via email at

Written by Gary Erwin