What does it take to be a leader?

Young Professionals in Foreign Policy hosted a wonderful event recently on future foreign policy leaders. It featured young professionals whom have already made a huge impact in their careers, including, Ronan Farrow, Special Advisor for Global Youth Issues, U.S. Department of State; Josh Rogin, Staff Writer (author of “The Cable”), Foreign Policy Magazine; and Alexandra Toma, Executive Director, The Connect U.S. Fund. 

The discussants led a conversation with the audience on what it takes to be a leader.

Josh Marcuse, Chairman of YPFP, offered my favorite advice of the evening.

Leadership is about always asking “is there a better way?”

Entrepreneurs do this by working outside the system to address an issue that existing institutions and products are not. Intrapreneurs ask this question within the system they work, to improve processes, products, and outcomes. 

I wholly agree with this view of leadership, and I think it’s an important mindset and skill for everyone. (Of course, it should always be asked with tact, and not at an excessive burden to productivity). 

There are ordinary leaders, and there are extraordinary leaders.

There are ordinary leaders in everyday life and work. They achieve and make possible small, but important successes on a daily basis, take pride in their work, and set positive examples for their communities. There are also extraordinary leaders, the “Bill Gates, Hillary Clintons, and President Obamas” of the world. Not everyone can be extraordinary leaders, but anybody can be an ordinary leader. 

Within this important distinction, it’s noted that one type of leader is not better than the other. Actions and character create leaders, not hierarchy. 

Here are some other key takeaways from the event:

  • Tack to truth. A Deputy Director from USAID told several moving stories, all with the conclusion to always side with truth professionally (and personally), even at huge risk to career or reputation. 
  • Just start doing something. Leaders have the audacity to start. Often, the first step to solving a problem is not wasting time determining the best solution, but just starting something, anything.  
  • The only way to learn is to lead. 
  • Leaders must show a path worth following.
  • Change is about individuals, not organizations. This is something President Obama recently mentioned in a speech. 
  • There is still meritocracy of ideas. The best ideas will often win, so if you have a great idea, advocate for it, and have it heard. 
  • Network for your idea. The best way to network is to find your passion or your start-up concept, and “network” with individuals around that idea as opposed to networking just for yourself. It shows your passion, and it’s easier to start conversations and connect with the right individuals. 
  • Be genuine. 
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