● 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 You Tube to spread American ideals around the world that Google hired him to run its internal “think/do” tank;
● Freeman Hrabowski, who as president of UMBC, 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 columnist for the New York Times, 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.