Last week at my NYU fellowship meeting, I had the opportunity to meet Joel Klein, the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education the largest public school system in the country.  Since becoming chancellor in 2002 he has been nothing short of controversial, drawing both praise and criticism for his emphasis on teacher and school accountability and support of mayoral control of schools.

Unsurprisingly, he viewed being controversial as a badge of honor.   While sharing his successes and failures he told us some qualities that make a great leader:

  • Know yourself:  Good leaders have great self awareness. They know their strengths, their weaknesses, and their desires.   You can’t lead unless you know who you are.
  • Focus on others:  You can’t lead people unless you know what they need.
  • Risk failure:  If you are interested in maintaining the status quo, you are not a leader, you are a manager.  Leaders see new opportunities and move forward with new approaches, which means they are not afraid to fail.
  • Don’t accept the status quo:  Anytime you try to do something new or different, people will have problems with it.  But if you aren’t controversial, it means you aren’t doing enough.
  • Pick your friends carefully:   This does not mean pick people who will agree with everything you say.  It means pick people who value you and your contributions and are willing to engage you and challenge you when necessary.

One thing I am learning from this fellowship is that people have pretty different approaches to leadership.  Klein, for example, emphasized taking bold decisive moves when it comes to bringing about change, while Schall (Dean of Wagner) discussed collaboration and passion.  Of course you don’t take bold actions on things you aren’t passionate about no one operates in a vacuum, but what’s clear is that different attitudes and approaches affect our leadership styles and positions.  I’ve found a willingness to get advice and mentorship have been crucial for my leadership development.  There is so much I dont know and need to know so reaching out and building connections has been incredibly healpful.

What attitudes or approaches have been successful in developing your leadership?