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ASU expert culls wisdom from world's top leaders

Sometimes world leaders change their minds, and when they do, they should get credit for that, according to an Arizona State University expert on global leadership.

Jeff Cunningham, a professor of practice at Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU, has spent the past two years probing the minds of top leaders in the worlds of business, politics and education.

“My problem with life today is that we capitalize on people’s mistakes and we ignore when they reveal that they’ve had a change of heart,” said Cunningham, whose series “Iconic Voices” just added its 48th video — an interview with F.W. de Klerk, the former president of South Africa. De Klerk was a key negotiator of his country’s move away from apartheid, and he shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.

“De Klerk recognized that apartheid was wrong and called it morally indefensible. And then he had to figure out how to change the country,” Cunningham said.

In the “Iconic Voices” interview, de Klerk describes his relationship with Mandela.

“It’s so emotional you’ll get goose bumps,” said Cunningham, who flew to Malta, where he was given only half an hour to interview de Klerk.

Jeff Cunningham (lef), professor of practice at Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU, interviews F.W. de Klerk, former president of South Africa.

“Iconic Voices” came about by accident. When Cunningham came to ASU in 2014, he was a professor of practice with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. With his background as the former publisher of Forbes magazine, he knew that the business model of journalism was rapidly changing, and he thought that the students should know more about that side of their industry. So he set out to establish a lecture series.

Cunningham knew Warren Buffett, and the iconic investor was the first invited lecturer.

“He said, ‘I would love to do that, but I would love it if you came to Omaha,’ ” Cunningham said.

So Cunningham took a video crew to Omaha and recorded the interview with Buffett in his hometown.

“The next thing I knew, it was on YouTube and I was getting a thousand views a day,” Cunningham said.

“My next guest was Michael Milken, the most important financier of the 20th century, but who is best known for the fact that he spent three years in prison. I thought he would be a great, roguish character who would add insight,” he said.

The series took off. The “Iconic Voices” YouTube channel now has 3,000 subscribers and more than 350,000 views. He has interviewed Sen. John McCain, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former CIA Director David Petraeus, ASU President Michael Crow and Barbara Barrett, a businesswoman, diplomat, pilot and major donor to ASU.

The channel includes full interviews as well as edited-down bites, such as a 42-second clip with Buffett on “Why the media gets it wrong” (“I always worry about the journalist that decides what story they’re working on and they’re just calling me for confirmatory evidence.”) and a three-minute segment of McCain discussing the 2016 presidential election (“I feel we, people like me, probably underestimated the frustration that is fed to some degree by some of the talk shows that demand purity in all of us. And it’s exacerbated a sense of frustration that America is feeling.”)

Cunningham has interviewed about 20 people for the video series and an additional 30 for his digital series of articles, including profiles and essays on topics such as why Queen Elizabeth is a model of intelligent discourse.

Cunningham’s background is in business, not journalism, but he was tossed into the deep end after he launched Directorship magazine.

“I fired my editor and found out I had to put out the next issue,” he said. “If you fire the head chef, you have the cook the food.”

While all of Iconic Voices subjects are at the top of their respective fields, de Klerk is unique in what he has faced.

“He talks about the problems of the world today: poverty, climate change and the inability to deal with diversity,” Cunningham said of de Klerk, who is founder and chairman of the Global Leadership Foundation, which works to resolve conflict through mediation.

“These are three burning issues we are not dealing with, and de Klerk dealt with them.”

Cunningham is hoping to interview more female business leaders for his series.

“I believe women are so ready to run these companies and start them, and I’m looking to find people who have plowed that ground.”

Find the entire series of videos and articles here and the YouTube channel here. The new interview with F.W. de Klerk is here.