President Vicente Fox: A Learning-Directed Leader
by Dr. Anna Kayes, Professor of Business Administration
The transition from business executive to statesman is difficult, and few make the transition successfully. Those few business leaders who achieve the title of statesman do so because they practice learning-directed leadership. President Vicente Fox exemplifies the qualities of a learning-directed leader—someone who appears unconstrained by prior limits, who is open to new experiences, is dedicated to the development of others, and is successful in the face of novel and complex situations.1
The path President Fox has chosen is not an easy one. He labored as a farmer and then a delivery truck driver for Coca-Cola. He worked his way up to President of Coca-Cola Mexico, was elected to the Mexican Congress, and then was elected President of Mexico, where he served from 2000 to 2006. President Fox recounts his early political career as a newly elected congressman in his book Revolution of Hope: The Life, Faith, and Dreams of a Mexican President. “We were amateurs, not political scientists,” he notes, “but we were desperately eager to learn!”2
For most leaders, ascending to the highest office in their country would mark the pinnacle of their leadership capacity. For President Fox, this is not the case. President Fox has chosen the same path we have seen in several other leaders who have spoken at Stevenson University’s Baltimore Speakers Series: their leadership transcends their position, and their passion for change extends beyond holding a title—even when that title is the highest position in their respective country. The contribution of many of the leaders we have seen in the Speakers Series stretches beyond their individual contribution and reaches into the next generation of leaders. For learning-directed leaders, leadership is always about developing leadership capacity in others, and most importantly building the next generation of leaders.
As a professor of leadership, I study and teach about the various roles that leaders play and the competencies that leaders demonstrate. In particular, I study how leaders learn and how they build learning capacity in others—what we call learning-directed leadership. One of the most important aspects of learning-directed leadership is mentoring the next generation of leaders. President Fox can be proud of the many things he achieved during his tenure as President of Mexico. For example, he successfully amended the constitution to eliminate discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin, gender, age, or religion. In my view, however, the work that President Fox has done after leaving office may be his most important work. He is dedicated to building the next generation of leaders by promoting academic thought and sharing his journey to inspire others. Learning-directed leaders like President Fox seek to build a lasting legacy through their teaching and mentoring. They become devoted to developing others and teach others how to remove roadblocks and persist in the face of challenges.
President Fox’s appreciation for learning came early in life. He watched his mother, whom he described as “a well-loved woman . . . who tended the sick, educated the children of poor campesinos, and stood strong when pistol-waving invaders came to seize our farm.”2 This caring for anyone, not just those in the powerful elite, stood with him as he promoted equality. Even early in college, where he attended a Jesuit school, he saw the power of learning and its ability to shape the lives of others. These experiences helped him formulate the idea that leadership is not tied to a position of authority, but even in small actions, people can demonstrate leadership and make a big difference where it counts.
Making a difference in others’ lives meant that President Fox did not quietly exit from the presidency of Mexico, but continued work on his vision to build future leaders around the world. Although the tradition of former Mexican presidents is to remain removed from the spotlight, President Fox has conducted many public conversations on leadership and the roles and responsibilities of current and future leaders. He is not likely to remain still for long. He notes, “I have spent my life in constant motion: striving, competing, fighting, changing, sometimes losing, sometimes winning, but, like any son of immigrants, always on the move,”2 so his work in the area of thought leadership post-presidency should not be a surprise.
President Fox’s experiences have likely taught him that all people can be leaders, not only those at the top of the organization or the elites in a society. Leadership emerges in communities, in organizations, in government, and in families, but “we misunderstand the concept of leadership, [thinking] that leaders are born. Many of us don’t find out who we are—what is our purpose, our life plan—and settle for a life of mediocrity.”3 To combat this kind of thinking, President Fox advocated for the establishment of Centro Fox, a presidential library and think tank. This international leadership research center helps individuals realize their purpose and execute their life plan. Fox’s mother, his Jesuit teachers, community leaders, and even leadership professors should be proud.
Centro Fox works with many people, from all sectors of society. It helps top executives learn about and take the same type of action that he did, such as creating knowledge and removing roadblocks. Realizing that not all change in society happens at the top of organizations, President Fox has also worked with establishing academic programs for emerging leaders, such as high school and undergraduate college students. In complex situations such as reducing poverty, promoting equality, and addressing immigration, where the solution is not clearly defined, leadership requires continuous learning and adaptation to new and changing demands.
Investing in leadership development, knowledge creation, and dissemination and fostering conversation about both the potential and the responsibility for leadership across society is perhaps the greatest legacy a leader can leave.
1.Kayes, A., & Kayes, D. C. (2011). The learning advantage: Six practices of learning-directed leadership. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
2.Fox, V. Revolution of hope: The life, faith, and dreams of a Mexican president. New York, NY: Plume.
3.Fox, V. (2011, April 1). Speech at Fuller Theological Seminary. Retrieved from http://www.fuller.edu/About-Fuller/News-and-Events/News/2011/Former-Mexico-President-Vicente-Fox-Speaks-at-Fuller.aspx
Dr. Anna Kayes is Professor of Business Administration at Stevenson University and co-author of The Learning Advantage: Six Practices of Learning-Directed Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan). She has extensive executive education experience and is a worldwide authority on learning and leadership. Her publications have appeared in such outlets as Oxford University Press, Journal of Managerial Psychology, and Journal of Management Education. Most recently she has played a key role in the Leadership Fellows Program at Stevenson’s Brown School of Business and Leadership, a student leadership initiative designed to build the next generation of leaders.