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The best leadership moments of 2012

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To come up with this year’s best leadership moments, I read back through all the leadership columns I’ve written over the past year. I tried to divide them between lists of the best and the worst moments, and sadly, this ’best’ list was far shorter.

It’s too bad—but at the same time, entirely expected—that role-model moments and instances of leadership done right are so few and far between. In a year that brought us the mud-slinging of a presidential election, a long list of corporate scandals and fallen leaders, and the leadership farce that the fiscal cliff negotiations have become, it’s no surprise that moments that made us proud were rarer than those that made us cringe.

Still, a few gave us faith in the ability of leaders to make the right call, to act in courage rather than fear, and to push us forward rather than pull us back. Here, my suggestions for the five best leadership moments of 2012:

1. A president in full

President Obama has been criticized repeatedly for acting aloof and detached from his emotions, and for hiding behind a demeanor that could sometimes be just a little too cool. But toward the end of the year, Obama seemed to break down that wall, showing us flashes of anger and emotion that seemed to imbue him with more humanity and more authority than before. There was his heated defense of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice amid Republican criticism. There was also the moment, in the third presidential debate, when Obama put on the mantle of presidential leadership. “I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families,” the president responded to his opponent, Mitt Romney. “And the suggestion that anybody … on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive.”

But anger wasn’t the only emotion he let slip from his usually cool veneer. It is rare to see a president shed tears, much less twice within a couple of months. But Obama had tears of pride when speaking with young campaign staffers after his election win, a moment that was captured and spread quickly via YouTube. And of course, there were tears of great sadness when he gave remarks on the day of the horrific shootings in Newtown. Two days later, a remarkably simple yet weighty speech at a memorial for the victims of the tragedy was praised as “the finest speech Obama has ever given” and even “his Gettysburg address.”

2. Chris Christie crosses party lines

Speculation ran rampant as to why, just days before the election, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had such effusive praise for the president’s performance in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Was Christie, one of Romney’s leading surrogates, upset about being passed over as Romney’s running mate? Was talking up Obama a way for a Republican governor running for re-election in 2013 to look good in a blue state? Or was this all a way to help defeat Romney in order to clear the way for Christie’s own presidential run in 2016?

Who knows. But I’ll take Christie at face value: This was a governor doing his job, trying to work with the president in order to get the most help possible for the people of his storm-stricken state. It’s all too rare we see political leaders willing to praise the other side these days. When it actually does happen, it just may be real.

3. Women break barriers

From the women who brought home more medals than their male counterparts at the London Olympic games to the record-breaking number of female senators who will serve in the next Congress after November’s election, 2012 brought a range of achievements for women in leadership roles. One of the highlights from the business world, meanwhile, was Marissa Mayer’s selection as the CEO of Yahoo. It’s big enough news that Yahoo decided to join the ranks of the few major corporations with women at the helm, but that it was willing to do so despite the fact that Mayer was expecting a baby (she very well may be the first Fortune 500 CEO named to the job when six-months pregnant) is an even greater milestone that shows admirable open-mindedness from Yahoo’s board.

4. Voices of courage on the board

Two high-profile controversies—the decision by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to reaffirm its exclusion of gay scouts and scout leaders, and the University of Virginia’s forced resignation and reinstatement of its president—may have qualified as some of the worst leadership moments of the year.

But within each one are examples of board members courageously standing up for their beliefs. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and Ernst & Young CEO James Turley, both members of the BSA’s board, spoke out in support of diversity and inclusion, with Turley saying “the membership policy is not one I would personally endorse” and “I intend to continue to work from within the BSA Board to actively encourage dialogue and sustainable progress.” Meanwhile, W. Heywood Fralin, then a member of the University of Virginia’s board of visitors and the CEO of the nursing home operator Medical Facilities of America, was the lone vote against the naming of Carl P. Zeithaml to replace Teresa Sullivan as interim president at U-Va. His public statement was unafraid to criticize the process leading to Sullivan’s resignation as “flawed.”

5. Reaching the Summitt

: It was a year that toppled the reputation of one of the coaching world’s greats (Joe Paterno) and included shenanigans from former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, former Florida Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen and the New Orleans Saints coaches over bounty payments. Amid all that bad behavior, Pat Summitt’s retirement as the longtime head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team provided a breather. Summitt, who had announced last year that she has early onset dementia, could easily be called the best coach in college basketball with her 1,098 wins and eight national championships. She bowed out gracefully, taking on the role as “head coach emeritus.” Over the course of her career, she showed how to lead a team to win after win. And as her career drew to a close, she showed us how to win again.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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