by Maria SCRIVANI
Let everyone else confuse celebrities with the real leaders: Susan Warren Russ knows
the difference. The executive director of Leadership Buffaloa sort of basic training
program for Western New Yorks movers and shakers and those who want to behas
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
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 areas
most promising leaderschosen from business and the professions, government, criminal
justice, health care, education, organized labor, human service and grass roots
organizations, clergy and the artsmeet for a year of monthly seminars and retreats
focusing on all aspects of life in Western New York.
When theyre 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 whos-who of
the local power elite. Its fine with her and fitting for her modest, unassuming
nature that most people dont know the name of Susan Russbut thats
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
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 Masiellos office, she can expect a call back.
But if Susan Russ were in it for self-aggrandizement shed be falling into the
trap that snares so many self-called leaders. Shed 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?
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 mans world.
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 changelike 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, Ive 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
didnt 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 converts fervor. It will be second only to
Fallingwaterthats how significant it is. We have a treasure here with five
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.
Susy conducting a Leadership Buffalo Retreat.
Now she wants to do more with the organization. Theres so much
potential, she says. This fall Leadership Buffalo will hold a seminar to see
where to go from here...Since weve 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. Its my place to sit
in the sun and listen to classical music, she says.
Susy and Rob boating for fun in 1996.
For a women whos led such an atypical life, she has a typical mothers
response when asked what shes most proud of. Im proudest of my
girlstheyre wonderful people. Clearly theyve 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. Theyve learned
to reach high and its the same lesson Susan Russ imparts to members of Leadership
Lizas 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 Russs legacy: What follows is a better
To receive information about Leadership Buffalo, call
852-7100, ext. 202.
Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.
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