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What Leadership Looks Like

At this crucial moment, we need courage, compassion and character.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

By John Hennessy

As you read this, the United States will be on the cusp of inaugurating Barack Obama as its 44th president. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, January 20, 2009, will be a historic day. Our country will be seeking inspiring, courageous leadership for the challenges we face.

In the past several months of economic tumult, we have been presented with difficult challenges as individuals, as citizens and as institutions. In my conversations with alumni, many of them ask: What brought us to this circumstance and what can we learn? How can Stanford best contribute to finding long-term solutions not only for the economy, but also for our environment and in international relations? What is the role of American higher education at this moment in time? The answer is leadership.

One of the ways the University can lead is by fostering discourse and stimulating ideas. We sought to do that with our Reunion Homecoming Roundtable, “Wanted: Courage, Compassion and Character—Leadership for the 21st Century.” Journalist and Stanford parent Tom Brokaw moderated the event and asked each of the seven panelists for their definition of present-day leadership. Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra, ’80, JD ’84, defined leadership in terms of “courage, transparency—what I would call ganas,” which he translated as “passion” or “hunger.” Collectively, the panel agreed that a strong leader has a reliable internal compass and the courage to push back against conventional wisdom when required. For those of you who could not attend, I encourage you to experience the Roundtable at

The University also plays an important role in communicating knowledge applicable to real-world problems. As Wall Street and the global markets foundered last fall, Stanford assembled a group of distinguished economists from our faculty and alumni to discuss the situation during Reunion Homecoming. The panel delivered clear and insightful opinions about the origins of our economic challenges and how we should proceed. In November, scholars from our Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies released a report, “Managing Global Insecurity,” that included recommendations for President-elect Obama. And a number of our faculty members are contributing to “America’s Energy Future,” a study undertaken by the National Academies.

But I believe our greatest contribution is in equipping our students to become leaders. That was the vision of Jane and Leland Stanford. The need to invest in our young people is greater than ever before. And today’s students inspire great hope for the future. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, ’58, told the Roundtable audience, “I see in this generation of young people an altruism, moderation, a sense of civic commitment, a decency, that I haven’t seen in 35 years of teaching. What they are beginning to understand is that our best security is in the world of ideas, and that the world of ideas must be concerned with the human condition.”

As his final question, Tom Brokaw asked those of us on the panel to describe our role models. Historian David Kennedy, ’63, cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the United States through depression and war. Kavita Ramdas, head of the Global Fund for Women, cited a young woman who created a school at an Afghan refugee camp during the Taliban years. I talked about George Washington and his leadership in holding together a fragile republic, first as general during the grim years of 1776-1777, and then as a citizen, resigning his military command and returning to his home at Mount Vernon despite calls for him to be king of the newly independent country. King George III, Washington’s former foe, later said that Washington’s actions marked him as “the greatest character of the age.” Justice Kennedy also praised Washington for the first president’s role in ensuring the completion of the U.S. Constitution. Washington demonstrated that being a leader meant listening to, and being subject to, the voice of the people.

I would like to leave you with Brokaw’s closing comments, which reminded me again of the importance of the education we offer: “The best leaders that I have found have the ability to take the complexity of the world and get it focused on what you need to do. As a great leader, you have to make others great. You have to see that as your role. You have to be able to collaborate and to connect. . . . All of the folks here, all of the students coming out of Stanford, if they represent those characteristics of leadership, those attributes, this world will be a better place. . . . That inspires me.”

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