Billy Payne speaks at the 2016 Mason Public Leadership Lecture.
Billy Payne speaks at the 2016 Mason Public Leadership Lecture.

Promising to convey an unconventional approach to leadership, UGA alumnus and former Atlanta Olympics CEO Billy Payne told a packed Chapel audience at the Nov. 3 Mason Public Leadership Lecture that “the difference between leading and following isn’t all that clear.”

“It is, in my opinion, a mistake to always default to the criteria of leadership when describing someone’s capability, a mistake to assume that we must all rise to the top rung of the ladder in order to be successful,” said Payne, who serves as chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, host of The Masters tournament. “Often I think that following, not leading, is the key to a successful life. It can produce the greatest personal satisfaction and reward.”

Payne recounted how a talk with his wife, Martha, early in their marriage changed his view of success and reframed his approach to leadership. What she told him was devastating: You don’t have any friends. You’re just too competitive.

“I was making a mistake of always equating winning with leadership, and by doing so, sacrificing future successes that depended on the efforts, skills and collaborations of others,” he said. “My wife was right. Since that day I have tried to walk that line between being aggressive at times or surrendering to the leadership of others significantly more skilled than I am.”

Securing the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta could be traced back, Payne said, to that life-changing moment.

“I can promise you absolutely, unequivocally, that the Games were won and successfully executed not because I was the leader, but because immensely talented people chose to follow me,” he said. “These were people whose leadership skills placed them at the highest levels of elite achievers. People completely unaccustomed to following, who did so because it mattered to others. They did so because it mattered to me, their friend. Believe me when I tell you to dream big dreams, because your friends will never allow you to fail.”

Payne made history by becoming the only person in modern times to continue uninterrupted as president and CEO of the Olympic Games after  leading a city’s winning bid. He is also a chairman of Centennial Holding Company. He helped grow the real estate investment firm’s portfolio to encompass more than 10,000 units and $1 billion in asset value. Accomplishments that, he said, he could only have achieved with the help of his friends.

“I have now become certain that success and satisfaction in life come from sharing goals rather than from achieving individual goals,” he said. “Leadership, therefore, could more appropriately be measured by how effectively we can articulate goals and objectives, which are embraced by others.”

The Mason Public Leadership Lecture is supported by a grant from Keith Mason, a lawyer and alumnus of the Terry College. It is part of the Terry Leadership Speaker Series presented by the college’s Institute for Leadership Advancement. The institute was established in 2001 to develop values-based, impact-driven leaders who serve their communities and organizations.

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