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. 

Christiane Amanpour on Leadership and Ambition

Christiane has two very important points in this interview

The first is that from day one of her career, when she was an intern and then entry-level, she worked hard to show her commitment and prove her worth. She showed a willingness to do anything or go anywhere, and did not complain even when work assigned to her was below her experience level. This is really important for anyone from day one of a new job, and especially those in intern or entry-level positions. The first tasks assigned are tests of the employee’s abilities and where first and often lasting impressions are made. Even if you are asked to do the most menial of tasks, you do it with a smile on a face and the same work ethic you would for your dream project. You won’t ever get an opportunity to work on your dream projects if you can’t prove that you are a team-player and willing to reach both above and below your job description and ambitions to support the mission. 

Christiane also talks about characteristics of leadership. She speaks of Nelson Mandela’s courage, and specifically his belief that the other side did not have to be crushed in order for his side to succeed—it was not a zero-sum game. He knew that he had to understand the story of the other side and have empathy in order to know how to best reconcile with them. The ability to recognize that the other side also has a story is vital. Even if you disagree, an understanding of the others’ views provides greater perspective for your interactions with them. This skill can be applied to not just peace processes but also workplace conflicts and competing businesses. Though not easily attained, nor sufficient for solving all challenges in and of itself, as Christiane notes, it is a true sign of leadership.