What makes a good leader? This CEO says, ‘confidence, dedication, integrity and love’

Former Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson has a carefully considered list of four traits — drafted on a plane ride years ago — that he says define a good leader.

“I got it down to five traits, eventually to four, and I’d like to share them with you,” he intoned as he stood on stage at the Madonna Inn in front of a crowd of about 140 people Friday. “They are confidence, dedication, integrity and love. The fifth used to be passion, but then I realized that went through all four of the other traits.”

Swanson was the keynote speaker at The Tribune’s 12th annual Top 20 Under 40 awards luncheon.

The award honors the accomplishments of men and women younger than 40 who have demonstrated excellence in their professions and commitment to community service. To be eligible, nominees must have lived and worked in the San Luis Obispo County year-round.

Swanson shared insights from his four-decade career with one of the country’s top-ranked defense contractors, including those four characteristics he looks for in a leader.

“If you don’t hold people to a high standard, the organization will go to the lowest denominator, so set your standards high,” he said. “If things go wrong, leaders take responsibility. And true leaders, if given a chance to rectify a mistake, do so urgently and strongly, and often they do things you wouldn’t, or don’t like to do. That’s part of being a leader and your responsibility.”

Swanson began his career with Raytheon in 1972. Fresh from Cal Poly, he said he was “the highest paid engineering grad,” earning $900 a month. (Before that, Swanson had grown up in Los Osos and attended Cuesta College.)

Fourteen jobs later, he would become the CEO of Raytheon, inheriting a company with a debt load of nearly $13 billion.

By the time he retired in 2014, that debt was virtually eliminated. In that same time, Raytheon’s sales grew 26 percent and its stock price and dividend each increased threefold.

“So the advice I give you is understand your cash needs,” he said. “Know your run rates and the funds available and the time you have left and most important, raise money before you really need it. I’ve seen some of the worst decisions ever made in business when there was no money and time left. Without cash, it is always darkest before it goes black.”

Beside helping to significantly improve the company’s finances, Swanson is also credited with strengthening the Raytheon culture, and transforming the company, once known primarily as a manufacturer of missiles, into a military electronics and technology powerhouse.

“When you have 70,000 people working for you, it makes you think long and hard about your culture,” he said. “I was proud to say Raytheon always scored in the top quartile regarding integrity.”

Now Swanson mainly splits his time among Boston, San Luis Obispo and other travel destinations; he has remained active with the Cal Poly Foundation and, with his wife, Cheryl, donated more than $10 million to the university’s golf program in 2015.

He also serves on a number of public and private boards, and the Swansons own the Center of Effort Vineyard, Winery and Estate in Arroyo Grande.

Swanson’s parting piece of advice to the Top 20 winners was met with a hearty round of laughter Friday.

“My last thought for you is, everyone knows the definition of an optimist and pessimist, right?” he said peering around the audience with a small smile. “The optimist sees the glass half full, and the pessimist sees it half empty.

“But remember — a pessimist is an optimist, with experience.”

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