The 10 most memorable leadership moments of 2013

December 24, 2013

In a year that included a government management debacle on a colossal scale, a 16-day shutdown of the federal government and far too many CEOs offering pseudo-apologies, coming up with a list of the year's best leadership moments was far harder than determining its worst. But looking back over our coverage for the year, a few examples stood out.

They range from heroic moments of leadership we hope others will emulate to small gestures that came amid a backdrop of bad news. They aren't without controversial figures whose actions will ultimately be judged by history. But the following 10 moments were memorable, at the very least, for the brave voices, clear leadership or courageous actions that were taken in 2013 by a notable few.

1. Pope Francis asked, "Who am I to judge?" 


Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

It's hard to pick just one out of Pope Francis's many inspiring moments this year. There was his interview in September, in which he spoke bluntly about the Church being "obsessed" with the issues of abortion, homosexuality and contraception. There have been his many acts of inclusion and humility—from washing the feet of a young Muslim female prisoner to the powerful image of kissing the head of a severely disfigured man—that revealed what kind of leader he is. And of course, there are the many times he's shunned the trappings of power (paying his own hotel bill, foregoing the papal apartments), acts that by their very nature re-instill credibility and faith in the office that he holds.

But perhaps no moment encapsulated his approach to leading the church as much as the response he gave in a news conference in July. When asked about gay clergymen, he said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Those five words—"who am I to judge"—reveal so much about how the pope sees his role as a leader, the humility with which he approaches his job, and the reform he believes the church needs.

2. Women senators helped end the shutdown.


Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The government shutdown in October left little to make us proud. But three Republican senators—Susan Collins (Me.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.)—were an exception to the rule. The framework begun by the three women is credited with helping to form the Senate deal that finally ended the 16-day shutdown. All of which makes us wonder: What might happen if women, and their tendency toward more collaborative leadership, held more seats in Congress?

3. Memorials for Nelson Mandela commemorated an icon.


AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Mandi Wright

It's not often that someone's death makes the list of the most memorable leadership moments of the year. But I'm including it because of the many moving tributes to the anti-apartheid leader that were spurred by his death. Many gave us that rare chance to consider what leadership really means through the power of his great example. But they also let us consider how we refashion leaders into icons, and how the complexities of their lives don't always fit neatly into those narratives.

4. Antoinette Tuff showed us how courage really looks. 


Michael Habermann / Courtesy of Bethany House Publishers

Back in August, the Georgia elementary school clerk who singlehandedly talked a gunman into laying down his arms may not have held a formal position of leadership. Tuff was a bookkeeper working on a day she wasn't originally scheduled to be at the school. But the remarkable confidence, compassion, strength and courage that enabled her to diffuse the situation are the qualities we want to see in the people who actually do hold seats of power. Her lessons for leaders are many—about negotiation, greeting evil with kindness, and poise in the face of fear.

5. Lean In provided a backdrop for a year of notable female firsts. 


EPA/BRITTA PEDERSEN

Sheryl Sandberg's career guide for professional women, "Lean In", may have its flaws. But any book that got us talking about how to get more women into positions of power is a good thing. And as the world debated whether Sandberg gave short shrift to working-class women or what it meant that Sandberg's own organization at one point planned to hire an unpaid intern, a funny thing happened: Women kept breaking new leadership barriers. This year included, among others, the nomination of the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve, the naming of the first female head of the Secret Service, the swearing-in of the first female president of South Korea, and the appointment of the first woman to lead a major global automaker.

6. Capt. William Swenson finally got his due.


AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Four years after his courageous actions in Afghanistan, Ret. Army Capt. William Swenson, who braved enemy fire to save his fellow soldiers in the deadly Battle of Ganjgal, received the Medal of Honor from President Obama in October. Some questioned whether the delay may have been a result of the award becoming politicized after Swenson spoke out publicly against military leaders. The award ceremony was not just a moment that finally recognized his bravery, however. It was important for what it told any other soldier who might be afraid to speak out against higher authority.

7. Jason Collins came out. 


Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Never before had a man playing in a major professional team sport publicly acknowledged being gay. That is, until Jason Collins, the NBA journeyman who'd never spent much time in the spotlight, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in April with an article that began: “I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.” Collins, known as a team player and a "pro's pro" who wrote "I sacrifice myself for other players," has now gone undrafted in the current season. Whether that's due to his seniority, his abilities or his admission about his personal life is hard to say. Whatever the reason, Collins' willingness to break the barrier and potentially put his own career at risk will surely lead the way for other athletes to follow.

8. Malala Yousafzai continued her fight.


PATRICK HERTZOGPATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images

The Pakistani teenager was shot in the head by the Taliban in late 2012, and began her campaign for girls' education even earlier. But it was in 2013 that she truly took her story global. Released from the hospital in February, she went on to write a memoir, launch the Malala Fund, and win the Sakharav prize for freedom of thought from the European parliament. She was also a favorite for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yousafzai says she's in it for the long haul—she would like to be a politician someday, she has said, even prime minister, and return to Pakistan. “By becoming a doctor I can only help my community, but by becoming a politician I can help my whole country,” she told an audience at the 92nd St. Y in New York in October. “I can be a doctor for the whole country.”

9. Australia's Chief of Army showed the world how to talk about sexual assault in the military.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSR19QL8ZvI

In direct, commanding and remarkably strong language, Lt. Gen. David Morrison, Australia's Chief of Army, addressed Australia's troops in a video about the country's military sexual assault scandal. Amid dispassionate comments from our own military chiefs and insensitive remarks from U.S. senators about the sexual assault crisis plaguing the ranks of the U.S. military, Morrison's sharp rebuke of his troops—and the explicit consequences he made it clear both perpetrators and those who covered for them would face—offered a clear example of the approach we'd all like to see more U.S. leaders take.

10. Edward Snowden forced us to ask questions about the NSA. 


AP Photo/The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras

It will be controversial to some to name Edward Snowden's massive leak about the U.S. surveillance state as a moment of leadership. Called everything from a traitor to a hacker, Snowden released documents for which the ultimate consequences—good or bad—are still yet to be known. But whether or not you agree with what he did, how he did it or what to call him, Snowden's actions have revealed unsettling details about the National Security Agency, some of which are now said to be likely unconstitutional. Are we better or worse off for it? That may not be clear. But there is little doubt that he has led the way not only to revealing disturbing truths about government surveillance, but, quite likely, toward emboldening others to become whistle-blowers, too.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Five Nelson Mandela tributes that will change how you think

Malala Yousafzai didn't win the Nobel Peace Prize--yet

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · December 23, 2013