Leadership role models


The civil rights leader Martin Luther King waves to supporters on August 28, 1963 on the Mall in Washington, DC. (AP/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
February 15, 2013

Who are your leadership role models? In historical terms, Abraham Lincoln stands out to me for his strength, perseverance, vision and ability to communicate. On a more personal basis, I admire a brother-in-law who is a police officer and two nephews who are firefighters because they knowingly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives of others.

I’ve asked that same question to many leadership experts from government, business and academia. Here are some of my favorite responses:

Having grown up in the 1950s and 1960s in the segregated South, Bill Corr, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, believes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis of Georgia are two of the most important leaders in his lifetime. “Their stand for justice and peace and serve as powerful examples for all of us,” Corr said.

Kenneth R. Feinberg, an attorney who has mediated some of the nation’s most highly charged disputes and author of “What is Life Worth?”, said, the late senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts was his role model. “Senator Kennedy was my mentor, my friend and the guiding force of my career. He would bend over backwards to attend weddings and funerals with his fellow senators. Senator Kennedy was constantly bridging differences in an effort get a public policy result.”

Chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Inez Moore Tenenbaum’s leadership role model is Dick Riley, who was governor when she worked in the House of Representatives in South Carolina. “I observed how he treated everyone with great respect. He was a phenomenal listener. If I’m in a tough situation, many times I’ve thought, “What would Dick Riley do?”

Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said he admires Theodore Roosevelt and what he did for conservation in this country. “He took what was, at times, an unpopular stance to preserve the forests we have today,” Tidwell said.

E. Allan Lind from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business noted that one of his role models is Martin Luther King, Jr. “I admire Dr. King, and I use his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech often in class because he had this capacity to reach out to people with different values, and to advance his vision in terms of their values. So when we look at that speech and many of his other speeches and actions, he was a remarkably good leader at saying, ‘Here’s what I think we should do, and I think you should do it because you hold these values that bring us to it.’”

Anna Maria Chávez, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of the USA, said one of her best mentors was former Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, whom she worked with as a senior adviser. “What I admired about Rodney was that he was a public servant who understood that government is really about working for taxpayers.”

Harold Hongju Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser, said a number of people shaped him as a leader, but Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun stands out. “Justice Blackmun was the hardest worker I ever saw. Nothing was beneath his attention. Many Supreme Court cases involve people who can’t pay the filing fees. Most people throw those cases away, but Justice Blackmun read them all and was deeply moved. Here’s one of the most powerful guys in the country and he empathized with the little person, the outsider. This was a powerful lesson.”

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s leadership role model is former representative Bob Michel of Illinois, who was the House minority leader when LaHood worked for him. “He developed in his office a real spirit of family. He hired good people and let them do their jobs. That’s the leadership style I learned from Bob Michel and it’s held me in good stead.”

Kevin Cashman, a leadership coach and author of five leadership books, said his leadership role model is Nelson Mandela. “To me, he embodies the principle of being the change you wish to see. He maintained his dignity through horrific situations. He embodies the tenets of grace under fire and living your values. That combination of vision, compassion and grace is pretty amazing.”

Who are your leadership role models? What lessons have you taken from their examples? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

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