Jim Danko had just started college when he had to make a life-changing and risky decision: to stay in school or to follow a road less traveled: drop out of college, go into business and finish school later.

Danko had worked at the corner of his street for a small one-man medical equipment company for five years — since he was 14. He had learned enough to run the business if he had to. And what happened was something the 19-year-old didn’t expect.

“The owner died; actually, he committed suicide, and I was the one to find him,” he says. “And I was the one that the family asked, ‘You’re the only one who works here full-time; would you be willing to drop out of college and help run this?’”

Danko thought seriously about the opportunity.

“I was willing to do it if they would provide me the opportunity to buy the business,” he says.

While he took over the business, he was never able to come to terms on its sale, so he decided he would start up his own company.

“I had some experience; I had an opportunity,” he says. “There was no guarantee I was going to succeed — it was somewhat of an educated risk.”

Taking that educated risk, and getting his parents to take a second mortgage on their house to help supply cash for the business, paid off quite successfully.

“Where my mother might have said, ‘No, stay the course, finish up your college,’ my father was a little bit more of an entrepreneur, and I opted to drop out of John Carroll University and start up a company,” Danko says. “I finished my undergraduate degree later.”

Business growth followed and by 1990, corporate facilities were booming.

“We were in our biggest year ever and someone came along and made me an offer for my business,” he says. “I was really interested in getting into the academic world, and again, I ended up opting for the road less traveled, to sell out during a big year.”

He enrolled in graduate school and received his master’s degree from the University of Michigan.

After stints of leading educational programs at institutions, such as Dartmouth College, Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., Villanova School of Business and the universities of Michigan, Washington and North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he became president of Butler University last year.

Lest you think that all that educational experience has transformed him into a traditional academic, think again. Danko uses his nontraditional leanings to blend some solid business practices that he learned into the college world: recruitment and retention of employees (including faculty), service to customers (students, that is), strategic planning, consensus building and innovation.

When he served as dean at Villanova for six years, the school went from being unranked to being ranked consistently among the top 20 undergraduate business programs in the country. Also during his time there, financial donations more than quadrupled.

At Butler, Danko wants to duplicate and even surpass similar accomplishments. At his installation, to kick off his message, he announced the formation of the $5 million Butler Innovation Fund to nurture creative thinking and fast track ideas, curricula and collaboration.

Nontraditional paths? Educated risks? Is that what Danko feels what today’s leader needs?

“I think it is a combination of the education and the practical side that really puts you in a position to be a more effective leader,” he says. After all, managing 1,025 employees and annual revenue of $189 million is no small task for an uninspiring leader.

Here’s Danko’s recipe for leadership: mix risk-taking, self-assessment, stewardship, add some experience, and you will be on your way.

Take risks and look long term

Whether it’s a business decision or a life decision, you have to take risks sometimes.

A number of successful companies, for instance, that are still operating were founded in one of the bleakest economic time of all — the Great Depression.

“You have to have the ability to be somewhat of a risk-taker, an educated risk-taker, and sometimes opt for what other people might tell you doesn’t seem to make sense,” Danko says.

Whether you feel you have to be born a courageous risk-taker or you can learn to take calculated chances is something that can’t be answered definitively with a yes or no. But rather, the matter of experience figures into the answer.

“I’ve taught entrepreneurship at Michigan, and I taught it at UNC, Chapel Hill; I don’t know if you are born a risk-taker, but I do think that some people have a higher tolerance of risk-taking, and it is probably something that you build up in life through experience,” Danko says.

One’s life experience, it’s often been written, is the sum of wins and losses.

“There is something about life experiences where maybe taking a few risks that worked out may not mean you are always going to succeed, but I think the practice of taking a risk is something that improves over time, and thus you are more prepared when the opportunity comes up,” he says. “There is a bit of nurture to it.”

When the opportunity arrives, you will be more prepared for that, realizing that there is a chance for failure and success but at least sometimes you know what it is like to get out of your comfort zone.

“You have to have an opportunity; it’s not just, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to just do this,’” Danko says. “Then step back, and look what is the opportunity that you are confronting that makes sense. I know now what I would have told myself then: ‘This seems like it’s got a shot. You could always finish college. There’s nothing written in stone that you have to get your degree done by the time you are 22.’”

You need to resist being too shortsighted if you take a risk. Being more focused on the near future may lead to disappointment.

“If I would’ve followed some advice, I might have listened to those you said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ — you have to kind of weigh all of all those,” Danko says. “I think people who live more in the moment tend to be a little more risk adverse. You have to look at the longer term.”

A longer-term focus can be developed through experience, especially in new positions of increased responsibility.

“The higher you get up the leadership path, the more you have to have a longer term focus,” he says. “You can’t just stop and say that it is all about the present, because there is so much that is about the future.”

Do a self-assessment

Introspection need not be a dirty word. Although some leaders may think otherwise, you have to do self-assessment in order to find your talents as a leader who can take risks.

“It’s the most important leadership attribute or trait that a leader needs to have,” Danko says. “Start with the ability to be self-aware and self-reflective. It truly is leadership development. You get better with age and with experience. But the only way that you are going to get better is if you are aware of your strengths and weaknesses and if you have some self-awareness of the need to improve.”

A lack of self-awareness can make matters worse. It can cause difficulty such as in working with other employees and achieving goals.

“I was asked recently by a professor here why some leaders do not admit their mistakes,” Danko says. “My answer was I think it is a lack of confidence, and some of that also comes from a lack of self-awareness. They don’t even realize some of the mistakes they are making.

“With confidence, some awareness that none of us are perfect and a focus on your own development, which means you are open to seeing some of your deficiencies, it makes you better prepared to admit failures and put you in a better position to successfully move forward.”

Some who have a mental block about introspection may need to work on defeatist attitudes. Others may, in effect, fear success because it may be unfamiliar territory.

“I think none of us are perfectly self-aware because it is hard sometimes to judge ourselves or to assess ourselves, but I do think that it is critical that you understand the importance of going through some assessment process,” Danko says.

“I’ve seen some people who just fail at it,” he says. “I think they might have just a blind spot about themselves that they are just not going to make it. If you read the examples of leadership failures, whether they are in the corporate world or the academic world, I think there is a number of people who are destined for that.”

You have to have an open mind about peer assessment and 360 assessments and having people provide you objective input into your strengths and weaknesses.

“Those who are close-minded to assessments are probably not going to be as successful, but again some of those will be, too,” Danko says. “But I think the ones that are not, frankly, they just have such a blind spot to their own weaknesses that they are never going to improve.”

Leave a legacy

When goals are being discussed among company leaders, one of the most concise is often the advice, “Leave your company better off than when you came.” It simply means to lead with your talents, skills and risk-taking qualities to shepherd your business to new heights.

“You need to be driven for the larger cause for the success of whatever enterprise you’re currently involved in,” Danko says. “Treat it as if it’s your own. You have to talk to your managers, and you need people to think as if they really are legitimate stewards of the operation to start thinking how they can leave this place much better off than it was when they came in.”

When it is time to evaluate your performance, look at the whole enterprise, and ask yourself the question. If you have adopted self-assessment practices and been willing to take risks, you will be able to judge how good a steward you have been.

“If there is some willingness to take some risks in your career — so someone who tends to be a little bit more innovative — that is someone who really likes the leadership scope,” Danko says.

Once you are OK with stepping out of your comfort zone, you can use that ability to take risks to not overextend your duties with newfound confidence but to have an impact at the upper levels of the company.

“I really did have this interest in a higher scope of leadership so it made me have to take moves that other people might not have decided to do,” Danko says.

“It’s not like you need a bigger scope of operations but that you’ll like the breadth of responsibility of the decisions around strategy and really engage at the highest level of an organization in terms of its of its success and failure,” he says.” It’s getting back to the issues of being self-aware and self-reflective. You have to experience failure. It’s not like all the decisions that you made in life worked out. You can’t take yourself too seriously.”

How to reach: Butler University, (317) 940-6000 or www.butler.edu

The Danko File

Jim Danko

President

Butler University

Born: Cleveland, Ohio

Education: John Carroll University for my undergraduate degree in religious studies, of all things, and an MBA from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

What was your first job?

When I was a young kid, I delivered the Cleveland Press. I’ve said this before to people: the opportunity to be a newspaper delivery person is a golden one. There was something about that paper route. I wanted every paper in those houses by 4 o’clock. And they had to be. It was like a zero defects mind.

I remember standing out there waiting for the newspapers on the day JFK died in November 1963. The papers usually get dropped off at 3:15 p.m., but on that date, it was closer to 5:30 p.m. because they held the presses.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

I found out about this Philadelphia guy who sold 200 Exercycles the year before, and I thought what the hell is this guy doing? So I met him, and he came up with a system where he took out commercials. He got an 800 number, and he was advertising: “call now for an in-home demonstration of the multiaction exercise machine.”

He said, “Jim, you make your pitch, and then you shut up. The next person that talks bought it.” So either that customer bought it or you just bought it back because you talked yourself out of a sale. It’s a negotiating tip that I have told I don’t know how many people since that time and even in my own career, even if I am asking for a gift or asking for a job, when you ask a question or whatever it is, you make your pitch and then you just shut up. It’s that quietness that forces people on the other side of you into doing something. It was a little piece of advice, but it was one of those things that has always stayed with me.

Whom do you admire in business?

Especially in the business world, I like people who have done a good job of turning things around or who have pursued things in a thoughtful way. I mean Alan Mullally right now at Ford has been incredible. I met him when I was at the University of Washington and he was at Boeing. He came out and talked with our students. I was very impressed with that, and the job he has done at Ford is terrific. Also, Jeff Immelt of General Electric; he’s a Dartmouth alum, I met him up at Dartmouth when I was there, and I had him come to the Villanova school of business to speak last year, I was very impressed with him again. … These are both guys who were thoughtful; they don’t take themselves too seriously. They’ve got senses of humors, there’s confidence, there is willingness to talk about the gambles they’ve made, and there is willingness to say they’ve made mistakes.

What’s your definition of business success?

The definition of business success is be better off than when you arrived. And are you better off, have you really developed as well? I think it is kind of twofold when you talk about success. It’s got to be both for the place and for also you personally.

Published in Indianapolis