Rockville, Maryland, July 25 – In a world full of spin and disinformation, Richard Phillips, the Chair of Pilot Freight Services, has a refreshing level of clarity that’s hard to find. After the decline in the health of his father, Phillips left his political work in Washington, D.C., to return to his father’s company to rebuild it from the ground up with a foundation in transparency. His journey with his own family, his father and the reconstruction of his father’s work taught him the truth behind leadership: projects succeed through teamwork and not through the decisions of one single leader. He shared these lessons with RespectAbility’s Summer 2018 class of National Leadership Fellows. Phillips argues that leadership is an overused often misunderstood term. Once you accept that decisions are best made and executed by groups, and not individuals, then true leadership can begin.
The first thing that you notice about Richard Phillips Jr. is his candor. When talking about his father, Phillips does not shy away from being truthful about his father’s unyielding and commanding nature while also describing the great amount of respect he holds for his father and his accomplishments. After working with the company through a difficult transition, Phillips Sr. began to buy in until he was the owner. When he began to develop Multiple System Atrophy, a type of slow-progressing ALS, he reached out to Phillips Jr. to return to Pennsylvania and take over. Phillips then learned what leadership truly was if only through how he diametrically opposed his father’s style of leadership.
Leadership, according to Phillips, is misunderstood because it arbitrarily categorizes people into leaders and followers and creates a false hierarchy that fails in practice.
“I try to build teams that, when the work is done, are able to look back and say ‘wow, look what we got done,’” says Phillips. “If when a job is done, and they say ‘Thank God Richard Phillips was there,’ then I consider that as a failure.”
Another misperception about leadership that one person should make all the decisions, and that one should always follow those who lead. However, Phillips argues that if a project hinges on the contribution of a single individual, then it can never truly be successful. As well, when all members of a team contribute to a final decision, it becomes everyone’s project, as opposed to the job of a single person.
It’s not often that the Chair of a Board will stay silent during a board meeting, but Phillips often does. His silence provides the opportunity for everyone to speak, share ideas and reach a unanimous conclusion rather than a single individual making a choice that everyone must follow. He says that he tries to “look at a group and look at the challenge it faces and figure out what it needs,” and sometimes that means “being silent.”
Leadership means listening, even being silent so that your team can be heard. “Your” decisions should become “our” decisions, he said. A lesson that is valuable to all. As a Fellow, having the opportunity to speak with Richard Phillips was an unforgettable opportunity.
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RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. This summer, 11 Fellows had the opportunity to learn from a variety of guest speakers. Learn more about the National Leadership Program and apply for the next cohort! Contact BenS@RespectAbility.org for more information.
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