One might think that the seven leaders who were selected by Harvard’s Kennedy School, in partnership with The Washington Post, as 2011’s Top American Leaders would have little in common. The seven men and women, who were recognized at an awards ceremony and panel discussion Monday at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., hailed from fields as diverse as bank regulation, arts management, opinion journalism and chemistry. One was born in Egypt, another on a cherry and sheep farm in Oregon, and another participated in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Children’s March” in Alabama during the civil rights movement before being jailed as a result.
But when it comes to ideas about leadership, the awardees had plenty in common. The seven winners—former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen, University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts President Michael Kaiser, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and Nobel Prize winner and United States Science Envoy to the Middle East Ahmed Zewail—spoke frequently about the value of honesty, the need to improve education, and the importance of doing the job at hand rather than worrying about the future. Each one also had thoughtful insights on how leadership is about groups rather than individuals and about character rather than title . These are insights applicable to any student on the subject, no matter the field.
In the morning’s first panel discussion, both Christie and Bair spoke of the importance of honesty for leaders. When asked, for instance, how they’d worked to gain the confidence of the public, Christie replied “it’s just telling the truth. I’m this guy from New Jersey getting all this attention…and I don’t understand it. People are starved to be told the truth.” Bair echoed Christie’s comments in her recollections of leading the FDIC through the financial crisis. “We weren’t looking for fights,” she said. “That’s just speaking the truth.” Later, she said being truthful and facing reality were the key elements of leadership. “People want honesty,” she said, but sadly, there has been a “systemic failure in our decision-making process in Washington.”
Meanwhile, nearly all of the leaders were passionate about the need for improvements in education. Zewail reminded the audience that while we may think people in the rest of the world associate the United States with brands like Starbucks and Coca-Cola, in reality, “the number one thing the world admires about America is education and science, but we’re not utilizing it very well.” Kristof, meanwhile, spoke of his focus on “education as a lever for change” in the developing world and bemoaned the problems with public education in this country. “The U.S. pioneered mass education,” he said, noting that research has shown public education is the reason this country became the economic powerhouse that it is. And UMBC’s Hrawbowski worried about the difference he regularly sees between American and foreign students in their willingness to work hard and remain disciplined when it comes to education. “Make no mistake about it,” he said, “students from other countries tend to be more disciplined. …you have to show a passion for the work itself.”
Perhaps the best advice for aspiring leaders given repeatedly throughout the morning was to focus on the job you have rather than on where you want to be in the future. Christie, for instance, said he was focused on being governor of New Jersey when asked about his presidential aspirations, and invoked wisdom from his mother: “Do the job in front of you as well as you can and your future will take care of itself.” Bair reiterated similar advice when she spoke of her focus on the difficult job of running the FDIC during the crisis. And Zewail said he frequently gets questions about whether he envisioned himself winning the Nobel prize before he did so. “They think I planned everything on a piece of paper,” he says, adding that he actually would never have won a Nobel Prize if that’s what he thought about constantly. “You have to develop your own passion,” and focus on it every day.
Finally, while each of the seven leaders had their own way of defining leadership, each one of these definitions spotlighted the team over the single leader as well as a leader’s integrity over his or her title. As Hrawbowski put it, “leadership is not about the status of one person but the dreams and values of a group of people.” The Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser called leadership “not doing what’s good for yourself, but creating change in the world.” And Kristof, the New York Times columnist, couldn’t agree more. “Leadership,” he said in closing his acceptance speech, “is above all else a state of mind.”
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