Park Perspectives: Leadership in context

By: Park Perspectives
Berthoud Pass covered in snow
A snow-covered Berthoud Pass in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado

By Gabriel Sudduth ’10 (Arts & Sciences), Two-Year MBA ’20
Park Perspectives are authored by Johnson’s Park Leadership Fellows

Snow blew fiercely from the moment I was on Colorado’s Berthoud Pass—a 11,000—foot mountain pass between me and Interstate 70, a haven without blowing snow. Pavement was hardly visible. My body ached (gloriously) from a rare day of skiing during Winter Break. While the layer was not thick, anything more than a gentle brake was potential chaos on the multiple switchbacks that are characteristic of Berthoud. I was scoffing at the driver in front of me who was tailing another car closely. Why would someone do that in these circumstances (really, any circumstances)? Yet, even as I saw the risk, I still felt the urge to disregard my own standards and keep up with them. Ironically, doing so would not only have risked my safety and peace of mind, but theirs.

Resisting conformity, draining but necessary

My experience driving down Berthoud was very representative of my first semester at Johnson. It starts with a bang: Orientation, our Leading Teams class, and case competitions and assignments with our core. As core classes begin and companies start coming to campus, the flywheel really starts to turn. Classmates choose different paths for themselves: career trajectories, companies, case competitions, club leadership (including starting new clubs), or social events.

Gabe Sudduth's son plays in the snow, despite wearing an outfit that does not match Ithaca's winter temperatures.
Leadership requires staying true to your own values. Gabe Sudduth’s son stays true to his vision for an ideal outfit, despite pressure from Ithaca’s chill.

The power of the current—appearing confident, successful, popular, productive, or sometimes, just as unprepared for a midterm—is strong for most, myself included. I have found that consciously and repeatedly making decisions that go against the flow can be draining but is necessary to protect my own sense of identity, passion, and balance. Just as consistently fighting to resist the urge to tail the car in front of me as we headed down the Berthoud Pass took constant effort to maintain my peace of mind.

This reality also extends into the broader journey through life. I have been exploring how leaders can excel even amid the constant questions asked of purpose and mission. To me, a leader needs to be in tune with their context, yet not “of” it. So the larger question is: “How can I as a leader find my way through the current, remaining true to myself and my values while maintaining sensitivity to my context?”

A leader is not a non-conformist, seeking to be different. A leader is not disengaged from their context, checking out from the interests of others. A leader is not putting others down, trying to make themselves feel better about the success or decisions of others. At the same time, a leader who simply gives way to the current is hardly visionary or inspiring.

Leadership Checkpoints

I am grateful for several checkpoints throughout my experience with the Park Fellowship and the Leading Teams practicum that have enabled me to understand my context better and position myself intentionally to grow as a leader:

1. Internal context: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator—a classic assessment to understand key personality tendencies

2. External context: A 360° assessment from past career and personal contexts, personal feedback from my Park cohort, and feedback from my core team

3. Outside counsel and learning: One-on-one discussions with Laura Georgianna, our executive director for Leadership Programs and director of the Park program, and readings on core leadership practices

4. Vision-setting: Crafting a personal mission statement

The last exercise—establishing a personal mission statement—has been an amazing exercise in cutting through contextual noise. A mission statement is more than a bumper sticker. It is a defining credo that brings key values to the forefront. It is an antidote to “going with the flow” and always letting context fully determine your next steps. What surprised me in drafting my mission statement was how the day-to-day choices facing my MBA cohort about careers, geography, clubs, and grades have fallen to the wayside. What endured were my commitment to my faith, relationships, integrity, and learning.

Adding these values to my current vision for leadership creates a powerful guide for me in navigating my context:

“Leadership is motivating others (individuals, teams, and/or organizations) to rally around and execute shared goals that allow them to achieve more meaningful, impactful, lasting results together than are possible apart… to get to that point of excellence, the leader must be a servant who meets others where they are and helps them get where they want to be.”


I recently read Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing its Soul, by Howard Schultz. Schultz tells the story of reinvigorating Starbucks when he again became chief executive officer in 2008. He returned the company to the roots and culture that he fostered early on as he bought and expanded the company. In his mind, if Starbucks failed to lead from its core values, all else was mere profit without impact. He wrote:

“Valuing personal connections at a time when so many people sit alone in front of screens; aspiring to build human relationships in an age when so many issues polarize so many; and acting ethically, even if it costs more, when corners are routinely cut—these are honorable pursuits, at the core of what we set out to be.”

Three semesters of Johnson remain for me, with abundant opportunities to lead in visible and less visible ways: case teams, teaching assistant duties, clubs, an internship, and serving my family. My mission statement and leadership philosophy provide a clear guide to how I can grow as an in-tune leader with complete integrity sensitive to, but not defined by, my context; a leader confident of his values and vision, who can inspire and bring out the best in others regardless of the context in which we find ourselves. A leader adept at sensing when the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) pressure to keep up with other “drivers” may be leading him to betray his own calling.

Link to learn more about the Park Leadership Fellows program

About Gabriel Sudduth ’10 (A&S), Two-Year MBA ’20

Portrait of Gabriel Sudduth, Two Year MBA '20

Gabriel Sudduth is a first-year MBA candidate at Johnson. He is grateful to be spending two years honing his leadership, strategy, and operations skills at Johnson. Outside of academics, he loves outdoors in any form and with his family. He previously served as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton advising a federal R&D office in both long-term strategic issues as well as in day-to-day operations. He also served as a policy advisor in the U.S. Senate for almost five years. Gabriel holds a BA in biological sciences from Cornell University.