John G. Medlin Jr. tops the fist of bank CEOs most admired by their peers for the second year running.

According to the American Banker/Heidrick & Struggles annual survey of banking's chief executive officers, the CEO of Wachovia Corp. best exemplifies the traits of a great leader: a sense of focus, good communication skills, the ability to make tough decisions, and adaptability to change.

"Change is what banking CEOs are dealing with more than anything else," said Emanuel N. Monogenis, who heads the New York-based financial institutions arm of Heidrick & Struggles. "In the past, because of a very different regulatory environment, everything was preordained, so the emphasis was on being good managers and administrators. Now, they must be good leaders by anticipating change."

Other CEOs that made the most-admired list include Bank One's John McCoy, NationsBank's Hugh McColl, and Morgan Guaranty Trust's Dennis Weatherstone.

Setting an Example

Mr. Medlin believes a CEO should provide a vision and sense of direction, and possess integrity and a breadth of intelligence.

"They have to set an example for others in every respect," he said. "Hours, work ethic, moral behavior, professional competence, courage, patience, sensitivity to people, but making the tough decisions when necessary. You can't expect an organization to be of higher caliber than its leadership."

CEOs of the future, he predicted, will first have to be good at managing asset quality. Then they'll need marketing expertise, because a sluggish economy will make bank growth difficult. Since they must do better at expense management, they will also require good schooling in technology.

The 24 CEOs who responded to the 1992 survey said successful future leaders in the banking industry will need an increasingly broad diversity of skills: finance, marketing, corporate banking, and retail banking.

The survey respondents believe that most bank CEOs in the future will still come from within the ranks. That will be, especially true at smaller banks where the leader must have hands-on knowledge of operations, argued William Smith, chief executive officer of 10 banks in the Capital City First National Bank group in Tallahassee, Fla.

Back to Basics

The survey respondents' advice to future leaders points to other characteristics that great leaders should possess. When asked what advice they would give to a son or daughter about to embark on an executive position in banking, the survey respondents said:

* Get a broad background in business.

* Be disciplined and focused.

* Learn to accept change.

* Tolerate ambiguity.

* Be tough.

* Look for areas everyone stays away from, do well, get a sponsor, build a reputation, and network.

* Position yourself to be lucky.

Mr. Medlin recommended doing the very best with every assignment, no matter how small; learning as much as possible about other parts of the company; and reading voraciously.

"When you first come to work," he said, "finance and accounting are the important things. As you progress up, you will learn political science, philosophy, history, psychology - all those liberal-arts courses you took were not a waste of time."

Dale Browning, president and chief executive officer of Colorado National Bank of Denver, suggested seeking opportunities that encourage diversification rather than specialization.

He added: "Seek organizations that are dynamic and contemporary, that are known for their competitiveness, rather than provincial. It's strange, but every company is really characterized by the leadership."

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