Jared Cohen is one of seven recipients of the 2011 Top American Leaders awards, bestowed by The Washington Post’s On Leadership section and the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership. This year’s recipients were chosen by a selection committee convened by the Center for Public Leadership, and will be honored at Ford’s Theatre on December 5, 2011.
This profile was written by Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School and a member of the 2011 Top American Leaders selection committee. Visit On Leadership to see more of the winners’ profiles.
If the polymath is a person of great learning, Jared Cohen is the polymath plus: the informed doer who moves diverse knowledge into great action.
Educated at Stanford and then at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, author of three books, a four-year veteran of policymaking at the U.S. State Department, and adjunct fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, Cohen now runs Google Ideas, a “think/do tank” that is targeting some of the world’s most intractable problems. All this by age 30.
While on the Policy Planning staff of the State Department, the youngest member ever, Cohen traversed the Middle East, feeling the currents of unrest but also appreciating that the dissidents’ social dispersion thwarted their political action. The Web could change all that, he believed, and in a position to make a difference, he did so during the Iranian uprising of 2009.
Sparked by the flawed election that had “re-elected” president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian protesters took to the streets with a coherence that could never have been mustered before the advent of social media. Iranian authorities predictably blocked text messaging and satellite feeds as the demonstrations mushroomed, but they were unable to squelch Twitter. By sheer coincidence, however, Twitter itself was about to go off the air for scheduled maintenance.
With a foot in both technology and statecraft, Cohen contacted friend Jack Dorsey, Twitter founder and chairman, with an urgent plea: “It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?” Dorsey did, and though the White House had taken a stance of no visible interference and officials were angered by Cohen’s call, tweeting continued in Tehran. The regime ultimately crushed the uprising, but the political power of new media had been proven and would later help catalyze the Arab Spring.
Moving to Google in 2010, Cohen would again combine his yin and yang, technology and statecraft, in the context of redefining corporate social responsibility from charitable giving and harm avoiding to conundrum solving. Why not, he thought, harness the new technology and brain power of a company built from the Internet to attack what has little to do with the Internet but everything to do with threats to our existence – failed states, corrupt judiciaries, terrorist attacks?
Google Ideas, created in October 2010 with Cohen at the helm, is located not in the company’s philanthropic arm but inside its business operations. As a signature event, Cohen gathered on Google’s nickel some 80 ex-extremists – skinheads, neo-Nazis, jihadists. Now former extremists, they knew something about what they spoke, and in collaboration with company employees, terrorist victims, and academic researchers (the former president of Colombia sat with former Colombian guerrillas), they brainstormed on innovative strategies to combat extremism.
Neither the warp of corporate earnings nor the weave of shareholder value, Jared Cohen is moving Google into new territory to improve our existence, whatever the bottom line. Other companies, take heed. And some are. From a week-long trade mission to Russia with Cohen, eBay CEO John Donahoe concluded, “guys like Jared are going to change the world.”
In an era of specialization, knowers of dissimilar fields are scarce, diverse combiners more so, and disparately informed go-getters the rarest of all. Jared Cohen’s leadership path, with an abiding focus on radicalization and its containment, reminds us of the insistent need for more “polymath pluses” who can put and instead of or between expertise and action.