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October 1998

The Practical Vision of Susan Russ

by Maria SCRIVANI

Let everyone else confuse celebrities with the real leaders: Susan Warren Russ knows the difference. The executive director of Leadership Buffalo—a sort of basic training program for Western New York’s movers and shakers and those who want to be—has pared the whole idea of leadership down to one word: responsibility.

True leaders share a sense of community born of civic pride, Russ says, and if that seems like an old-fashioned ideal rest assured her vision has a modern, practical twist. In its first decade Leadership Buffalo has become a model of networking and the power that lies therein.

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Albert and Mildred Ann Warren with Susy at 10 months.

Susy makes a point with the Easter bunny in 1949.

“The class is a year long conversation,” Russ says of the program she helped found, based on similar organizations in other cities. Each year 50 of the area’s most promising leaders—chosen from business and the professions, government, criminal justice, health care, education, organized labor, human service and grass roots organizations, clergy and the arts—meet for a year of monthly seminars and retreats focusing on all aspects of life in Western New York.

“When they’re in the class, their knowledge and vision of issues in the community and what leadership means is broadened,” Russ says. “It gives everyone an opportunity to see the big picture.” Someone who is expert in the arts may not know much about health care, for example. “We come to a better understanding of each other and our diverse issues.”

The roster of past and current Leadership Buffalo class members is a who’s-who of the local power elite. It’s fine with her and fitting for her modest, unassuming nature that most people don’t know the name of Susan Russ—but that’s changing as the word about Leadership Buffalo gets out and ten years of sowing seeds bears fruit. After a recent Buffalo News article chronicled her life, Russ was surprised by the response.

“I suddenly had all this clout,” she says. “I suddenly had more authority, or more recognition of it.” When pressed she admits that these days if she calls Mayor Masiello’s office, she can expect a call back.

But if Susan Russ were in it for self-aggrandizement she’d be falling into the trap that snares so many self-called leaders. She’d be, frankly, acting like a traditional power baron, driven by ego and political expediency and precious little accountability to the community. The Russ style and the credo she preaches is to ask always what is the greater good and how best can we shape our future?

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Susan and Robert tie the knot - September 12, 1970.

At 51 Susan Russ has been married for 28 years and is the mother of two grown daughters. She was taught early on by a “very Edwardian father” that you never speak to anyone to whom you have not been introduced. Women, in the world she was growing up in, were expected to behave with a certain decorum. It was a man’s world.

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Liza, Susan and Alex in 1980.

Now Russ speaks with some bemusement of her own quiet revolution. From a hospital volunteer pushing a “sunshine” cart she grew into a person confident enough to propose and help implement big change—like the relocation of a hospital gift shop to make it more profitable. She went from being a Junior League member to serving as president of that venerable organization.

“Really, I’ve fallen into things that are most important to me,” Russ says. “I began to volunteer for Hospice because my mother had died of cancer. I didn’t want others to suffer the way she did.” That altruistic response led her to the post of director of volunteers for Hospice, a position she held for six years, helping to steer the organization to its current local prominence.

She served as a co-chair of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Annual Meeting and Conference held in Buffalo last year. Recalling that her architectural engineer father was not a fan of Wright because his roofs often leak and his rooms can be drafty, she made a quick study of the importance of the great architect and signed on to the local restoration cause. “When the Darwin Martin house is done it will be fabulous,” she says, with a convert’s fervor. “It will be second only to Fallingwater—that’s how significant it is. We have a treasure here with five Wright homes.”

Russ was volunteering for the then Chamber of Commerce following her Hospice and Junior League stints, when she was sent to a community leadership conference. By the end of that weekend seminar she was off and running. “I knew I wanted to do this,” she says of the genesis of Leadership Buffalo.

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Susy conducting a Leadership Buffalo Retreat.

Now she wants to do more with the organization. “There’s so much potential,” she says. This fall Leadership Buffalo will hold a seminar “to see where to go from here...Since we’ve been around for ten years we now have members who are in senior leadership positions or heading there. We need to ask, is there something we as an organization can do to encourage our members to make the hard decisions of leadership, such as taking stands that are not necessarily popular, but are for the good of the community?”

Russ has already developed two forward-looking offshoots of Leadership Buffalo: First Impressions, a seminar series introducing relocated senior executives to the Niagara Region, and Youth Leadership Erie County, a community leadership enrichment program for upper high school students.

As Leadership Buffalo faces the challenges of a new century Susan Russ, true to her nature, may move on to the new challenges of her own. “I like creating things more than I like managing them,” she admits. When she needs to step back and recharge she heads to the family retreat at the Chautauqua Institution. “It’s my place to sit in the sun and listen to classical music,” she says.

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Susy and Rob boating for fun in 1996.

For a women who’s led such an atypical life, she has a typical mother’s response when asked what she’s most proud of. “I’m proudest of my girls—they’re wonderful people.” Clearly they’ve inherited the Russ drive: Elizabeth is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Rochester, and Alexandra is a student at the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture. They’ve learned to reach high and it’s the same lesson Susan Russ imparts to members of Leadership Buffalo.

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Liza’s graduation from Columbia (with sister Alex) in 1997.

Her constant refrain has been “How can we better benefit the community?” The Leadership Buffalo motto will be Susan Russ’s legacy: “What follows is a better Buffalo.”

To receive information about Leadership Buffalo, call
852-7100, ext. 202.

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.

 

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