What qualifies a leader?

By On Leadership
Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lisa Caputo is chief marketing officer at Citi. She is also chief executive of Citi's Women & Co.

Leaders come from all walks of life but have a number of traits in common: integrity, common sense, tenacity, the ability to inspire the best work from others, and (as exemplified by this nomination) the courage to challenge received wisdom and look beyond the obvious. Experience is a core element of leadership, but the best leaders have the ability to transcend the particulars of their resumes.

Elena Kagan has never before worn a judge's robes. Given her wealth of experience, however, if confirmed to the Supreme Court she will have the opportunity to accomplish what all real leaders must do: Define the role for herself.

Slade Gorton is a former U.S. senator and Washington state attorney general.

Picking someone without judicial experience was a wise move on the president's part, because contemporary experience in the real world is a vitally important qualification for a Supreme Court justice. The court's world is so divorced from reality that its members become frozen as of the date on which they ascend to its august precincts.

The problem with the Kagan nomination is that she will not be moving from the real world but will simply reinforce a group already overwhelmingly composed of those from a single academic background that has given them not the slightest inkling of how the vast majority of Americans think and live. Nor has a single one of them ever run for office and thus had to concern himself or herself with what citizens think about public affairs. For those reasons alone, it is a poor nomination.

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach and speaker.

As a member of the high court, Kagan will experience a learning curve, but her ability to work with colleagues including those who disagree with her should hold her in good stead. Consider the example of outside leaders running businesses in which they had no previous hands-on experience. Alan Mulally became chief executive of Ford Motor Co. after a career at Boeing. Ford was in serious trouble when Mulally came aboard in September 2006. The company was in precarious financial shape, its product line was ragged, and morale was dispirited.

Although Mulally was new to the auto industry, he was not new to manufacturing. Mulally knew the virtue of a single focus and with his team developed the One Ford plan. After 3 1/2 years, Ford is making money, new products are succeeding in the marketplace and employees are feeling more confident. Ford is now considered one of America's most respected companies, in part because it took no federal dollars.

An executive running an unfamiliar business will experience a learning curve, and in the process he may miss things; subtlety and nuance morph into gray that may hinder informed decision making. Only years of running the business will bring true discernment. But a savvy leader will be a quick study.

Good leaders know from experience what it takes to get a team to pull together for a common goal. They know how to sublimate their ego when necessary and delegate responsibility and authority to others. And they know when to crack the whip.

Juana Bordas is president of Mestiza Leadership International, a company focusing on leadership, diversity and organizational change.

Being a Supreme Court justice is a lifelong calling. Elena Kagan has the experience, the moxie, the devotion to public service and the intellectual firepower to follow in Sandra Day O'Connor's footsteps. She is young, brilliant and an eminently qualified choice. While she has never been a judge, as a former dean of Harvard Law School she understands the complex and changing issues the court will decide. As the first woman U.S. solicitor general, she has been the "10th justice."

Michael Ellenbogen is a graduate student at Columbia University in a leadership course taught by panelist Todd Henshaw.

Though she has a lack of judicial bench experience compared with her esteemed potential fellow justices, and has not yet been put into the battlefield, Kagan has had many successful firsts in her lifetime.

Coming up the ranks traditionally may be safe. But we are not living in a safe world where safe still works. We need to take chances, make changes and truly think outside of the box.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company