The art of leading

Executive in Residence Tim Leslie’89 on the new course he’s teaching, how sociology changed his trajectory, and why he shifted careers from law to business.

Beloit College’s second Executive in Residence has been Amazon’s number two lawyer, manager of a small European video rental service that’s now known as Prime Video, and CEO of Leafly, a company that educates readers about safe cannabis consumption.

Tim Leslie'89 will teach a course about leadership this semester. Tim Leslie’89 returns to Beloit in the new role of professor. He’ll teach the new course The Art of Leading: Vision, Voice, and Influence — a topic he has some experience with.

“The concept of the class is that we all have gifts and the capability to lead, so it’s building awareness of our strengths as well as our deficits,” Leslie says. “As you find your purpose, you can lead or influence others to help you in that direction. That’s how I’ve always thought about leadership — everybody is a leader and we’re all training to lead, whether that’s leading your own life [or others’].

Leslie practices what he preaches. The executive recently co-founded Loving Roots, a nonprofit that collaborates with organic farms to feed and educate residents of Washington state. He’s bringing some of that entrepreneurial spirit into the classroom, too, tasking his students with developing a student leadership project at the College or in the greater Beloit community by the end of the half-semester course.

Becoming Executive in Residence was just one way that Leslie wanted to give back to the college that gave him so much. Originally from the Arlington Heights-Palatine area outside of Chicago, the future CEO was recruited to play basketball by Beloit and other Division III schools — in fact, he almost ended up at Indiana University. After visiting campus and receiving calls from professors and coaches alike, he found comfort in knowing that Beloit wanted him to have a rich experience as a student-athlete.

“I came for basketball and the intimacy, and I stayed for the education,” he says. “[I was] really learning the liberal arts and thinking broadly and deeply and inclusively.” Leslie took two of his most influential classes with sociology professor Marlynn May — one that focused on the criminal justice system and another that examined the relationship between sociology and the law.

“His approach for those two classes was to bring in all the ways that the law affects and is affected by the values of societies and the huge impacts it has on the people,” Leslie explains.

“We read unusual texts, learned the power of the legal system — it’s not always fair, and had a disproportionate effect, even 30 years ago, on underprivileged and underrepresented people in society, whether that’s race, gender, socioeconomic [status]. I never would have been the student that I am or gotten into Yale Law School if I hadn’t gone to Beloit College.”

Inspired by what he learned at Beloit, Leslie spent much of his early career as a lawyer for an upstart called Amazon, but he credits his time as a student with his risky move into the company’s business side of the company. He and his family moved to London when he became the managing director of Amazon’s new acquisition, a European equivalent to Netflix in its early days called LoveFilm. His job was to convert the DVD rental company to a streaming service, rebrand it as Amazon Prime Video, and launch it into the world.

“I was more of a student than a leader [at LoveFilm],” he says. “That’s kind of how I view leadership: get in the trenches with the team and [learn] as much from them as they do from you.” Leslie says leadership skills are especially important when it comes to interacting with people from different countries and cultural backgrounds. He hopes to bring that approach to his future Beloit students.

“I think that my 20 years of international experience at Amazon taught me, in the same way that the liberal arts education does, a broad perspective of different ways to see the world and to make sure that you bring together a group of people to try to see the world as objectively as possible,” Leslie says. “Applying that sterile Amazon approach doesn’t work everywhere, and you do need to have emotional intelligence and understand how people feel and react to things. I want to [help] people see what they can discover in themselves and build out in the world.”

August 26, 2021

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