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Sunday Pearlstein: Seven who exceed defining

at 03:11 PM ET, 12/04/2011

Monday morning at Ford’s Theatre, seven extraordinary people will receive an award from The Washington Post and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for being among America’s top leaders. At a time when inspiring leadership seems to be in such short supply, it’s worth celebrating those who are doing it and reflect on the reasons for their success.

The seven are:

- Sheila Bair, who led the FDIC through the financial crisis;

- Chris Christie, the brash and dogged Republican governor of New Jersey who has managed to make dramatic cuts to state spending while enhancing his popularity with voters;

- Jared Cohen, a wunderkind who was so successful helping the State Department use the power of Twitter and YouTube to spread American ideals around the world that Google hired him to run its internal “think/do” tank;

- Freeman Hrabowski, who as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has turned a commuter college into an nationally recognized incubator for minority talent in science and math;

- Michael Kaiser, who as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has expanded its reach, ambition and resources;

- Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, whose intrepid reporting and passionate advocacy have drawn the world’s attention to the abused, downtrodden and dispossessed;

- Ahmed Zewail, the Nobel Prize winning chemist and physicist who has used his notoriety to try to further educational, economic and political development in Arab world.

The awards are sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership and The Post’s On Leadership Web site.

As I was reading material about the winners last week, I kept having this nagging feeling that I was getting smaller and smaller with every turn of the page. Not only are they all extraordinarily smart, dedicated and focused, but you begin to wonder how they find the time or energy to do all that they do and still manage to read a book or pick up the dry cleaning.

If there is one theme that runs through the lives of these seven, it is their determination not just to do their jobs well, but to redefine their jobs to make them broader and the challenges more ambitious.

Take Bair. Although a Republican and a Bush appointee, she quickly became the skunk at the deregulatory lawn party when she took over the FDIC in 2006. Although she failed in her efforts to shut down the subprime lending machine, her opposition to a plan, backed by the Fed and the Treasury, to reduce bank capital requirements, made it possible for U.S. banks to come through the ensuing financial crisis in better shape than those in Europe, where the new rules had been implemented. And when the Fed and Treasury decided to let Citigroup repay its TARP loan early and free itself from heightened regulator scrutiny, Bair refused to go along, insisting on a housecleaning of executives. Under Bair, the FDIC went from being the regulatory equivalent of a cleanup crew to a full-fledged partner in the policymaking process.

When Christie arrived in the governor’s office in January 2009, on his desk was a previously unreported budget shortfall of $2 billion. He could have cut a bit here, raised a fee there and engaged in the kind of budgetary sleight-of-hand that would have pushed the day of reckoning off into the future. But Christie was determined to deal with what he viewed as the fundamental problem: the power of public employees unions to raise pay and benefits. When Democrats sent him a budget that cut too little and raised taxes, he sent it back with a veto message warning that he was perfectly willing to shut down the government. The legislature caved, and ever since then he’s continued to break all the rules of New Jersey politics, becoming a folk hero for fiscal conservatives and those of us who believe that voters want to be told the hard truths and are open to shared sacrifice.

It might seem a bit odd that a large corporation would take on a mission like ending violent extremism in the world. But that’s just what Google had in mind when it recruited a young polymath named Jared Cohen away from the State Department to launch a think/do tank. Inspired by the power of cellphones to transform rural villages in Africa, and the power of Twitter and YouTube to mobilize opposition to oppressive, Cohen’s charge is to harness the power of technology — including Google’s — to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems. As job descriptions go, they don’t get much more bodacious than that.

Hrabowski arrived at UMBC in 1987 with the aim of creating an environment for minority students where it was “cool to be smart.” He traded in the football team for the chess team and, with the help of Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, transformed his school into a national model for how to attract, motivate and educate black students and other minorities for careers in math and science, where they have been woefully underrepresented. UMBC recruits top students the way other schools recruit basketball players, puts them through summer boot camp and celebrates their student research in a peer-reviewed research journal. And in case you’re wondering, he’s done it while dramatically increasing standards.

Few Washingtonians were surprised this year when the Kennedy Center took over control of the struggling Washington National Opera. Kaiser, the Kennedy Center’s president, had rescued the American Ballet Theatre, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden before arriving in Washington, where he re-energized the Kennedy Center itself. Kaiser has combined its aspiration to be America’s arts center with his own Mr. Fix-It talents in an institute whose mission is to provide strategic and management advice to arts institutions across the country.

It certainly speaks to the independence of the selection panel that a prize awarded by The Post is going to a New York Times columnist. We at The Post, however, take at least some credit for our former summer intern and stringer. Nick has grown into the rare journalist who combines the instinct of a great reporter for the human side of every story and that of a great opinion columnist to identify the issues people ought to be talking about but aren’t — and to stick with them long enough until we do.

No prize we might offer could compete with a Nobel, which Ahmed Zewail won developing a technique for photographing molecules during the fraction of a second that they turn from one state to another. More recently, however, much of his energy has been to bring the modernizing influence of science and technology to his native Egypt, where last month the Egyptian cabinet approved the Ahmed Zewail City of Science and Technology.

For each of these seven, it is the scope of their ambition that makes others want to follow.

The Top American Leaders awards forum will be webcast live from Ford’s Theatre. Steve Pearlstein is among the moderators. Watch it online from 9am to 11am on Monday, Dec. 5.

More on this topic:

PHOTOS | Meet the 2011 Top American Leaders

Watch the webcast on Washington Post Live

Full coverage at On Leadership of the winners and the event

 
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