What a globe-spanning career taught Calvin Sims about leadership and human nature

Calvin Sims

Calvin Sims

By Tina Irgang

Calvin Sims spent 22 years with the New York Times, many of them as a foreign correspondent in South America and Southeast Asia. He has also worked for the Ford Foundation, fostering the development of a free press worldwide. But it was his history of living and working abroad that attracted him to International House, a network of residential colleges whose goal is to build bridges between cultures. Here, Sims discusses the common threads of good leadership he has observed around the world, and the values that should inform such leadership.

What attracted you to working with international students?

Sims: I’ve lived a good portion of my professional life overseas as a foreign correspondent. I worked for the New York Times for 22 years, and most of that was as a foreign correspondent in a variety of places, anywhere from South America … to Japan, Korea and Indonesia. So I had always had a passion as a young person to travel abroad, and I got that opportunity as a foreign correspondent. Coming back after spending so much time abroad, you still have that kind of wanderlust, and the opportunity came to work for International House after I had worked for the Ford Foundation, administering a portfolio of media grants. It spoke to me. I had lived in a residential college at Yale, and I had a taste of that experience. Those residential colleges were much smaller than International House, but provided a very intimate setting where I lived with the same group for four years. … International House is sort of an uber-residential college. I knew exactly what this organization was about.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned leading International House? Were there any surprises?

Sims: Well, I think it’s one thing to live in a residential college and another thing to actually head one. One of the things that surprised me the most is the role itself, being the president and CEO. … I have about 80 employees and 35 trustees and about 50,000 or so alumni around the world. So there’s that part, which is running the day-to-day operations, but it’s also kind of being the role model, the leader for the community. I speak Spanish and am conversational in Japanese, … so being able to converse with residents and staff in those languages, understanding what it’s like to live in a foreign place is very helpful in building the kind of collaboration and exchange that takes place in International House.

Calvin Sims (right) with American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault at the 2016 International House Awards Gala

Calvin Sims (right) with American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault at the 2016 International House Awards Gala

You’ve had a long career in cultural exchange. What have you noticed about how different cultures perceive and practice leadership?

Sims: As much as we are a globalized world, local issues always overpower globalization, although they are fusing now. Leadership is as much cultural and regional as national or global. But you do start to see, especially in the regions where I served as a foreign correspondent, you start to see some trends and start to understand I think that good leadership is not always what should be done, but what can be done. There are all sorts of politics that revolve around any one culture or country that keep leaders from doing what they would really like to do. But [leadership] is really trying to broker that and trying to get there. … So that’s one thing I learned in all the places I lived.

Over the years, the relationship between the press and the political and business leaders it covers seems to have become more adversarial. What stake do CEOs have in preserving freedom of the press?

Sims: I would imagine that all CEOs have a vested interest in having media coverage that is principled and balanced, because that tells the true story, and I think it’s to their benefit. When I was at the Ford Foundation and was a program officer for media and journalism, one of our main calling cards was promoting press freedom around the world, trying to fund good journalism. … I think any CEO knows that a report that’s principled and based on sound values will serve their purposes, whether it’s a not-for-profit or a for-profit. And I do think that this circles back to the perspective we have here at International House. We’re a values-based organization, and those values [include] the ability to respect other human beings mutually, the ability to have empathy. You may not agree with someone’s perspective or opinion, but try your best to understand that person’s opinion and respect it. We hear from our alums that it’s those values that actually helped them in the decisions they made. For example, James Gorman, who is CEO of Morgan

Calvin Sims (left) with an International House resident at the organization's 90th Anniversary Ice Cream Social.

Calvin Sims (left) with an International House resident at the organization’s 90th Anniversary Ice Cream Social.

Stanley, … talks about the values he gained here at International House and how they helped shape him. He was mentored by an International House trustee who helped steer him into finance. So I think, when we talk about values, good leadership is shaped by values, and those are the values we try to impart here.

In the 21st century, we’ve achieved connectedness through technology all over the world, but it seems like people with different cultural and religious backgrounds still don’t truly understand each other. How can we change that dynamic?

Sims: It really does come down to your daily interactions. I think ignorance really does breed ignorance and naiveté. At International House, there are residents from 100 countries. … The setup of the house is such that the rooms are very small, so they’re really only for sleeping. But residents are encouraged by the setup and the salons that we have for them, to interact. … It causes people to be challenged, to think differently and question their opinions. On a daily basis, you’re constantly running into somebody that causes you to change the way you look at things.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.