How To: Be A Great Leader


Last week you met Dr. Cecilia Conrad, VP of the MacArthur Foundation. There were so many things about her that I was impressed by, but it was her leadership skills that really stood out. Whether a college professor, Dean, or VP of the Foundation, she has spent a lifetime leading. So, we thought we’d let our readers in on how she does it! Here are Cecilia’s top five lessons based on her experience spearheading the 100&Change organization. We hope you’ll be just as awestruck as we were!

1. Be a good listener.
I think if you listen to what other people are saying, or what their concerns are, or what their ideas are, and try to filter what you think would work, [you can] use it to construct something new. And [if you] always communicate what you think you heard, then you build relationships in a very different way. Because people want to be heard. So even if you don’t do what they want you to do, if you have really explained why you aren’t doing it that way, and how what you’ve heard from them has affected your decision making, it builds respect and trust and confidence.

2. Make a point of acknowledging other individual’s work.
In 100&Change, I think being open with the fact that we were all learning as we go and recognizing [everyone’s] contributions even if they weren’t the ones we ended up using, I think is a part of [building] that [respect].

3. Think of something you really like about every person you meet.
There’s almost [always] something about everyone that I respect or that I really like. And I try to find that thing and keep it in mind, so that when I’m in a situation where we’re in conflict, or we’re disagreeing, or I’m irritated, or tired, or otherwise annoyed, I try to focus on [it]. So it might be when a faculty member who’s being incredibly demanding, it might be he used to coach his daughter’s soccer team and I know what a great coach he was and I’ll focus on, “you know, this guy was a great soccer coach,” so I still can be reasonable with him. I find that it’s a really useful technique to get past difficult situations. Though there are some people in the world where you might not be able to find anything and then you should carve your life without them.

4. Take risks, especially in new initiatives.
You have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes. And so that meant that I had to create an environment where people felt safe, perhaps moving in a direction that was wrong, that we’d have to step back from. Because a lot of times, what slows people down is that they are afraid of the wrong thing. And that was – I think, a critical thing – was just allowing ourselves, giving ourselves permission to stumble a little bit.

5. Lead by example
We actually started off by writing down what the project would look like and kind of comparing notes and arguing different approaches. In one case, there was a choice to be made and we had to acknowledge that it wasn’t clear which one was the right choice. So, we were just going to make one and go with it. And then also publicly, kind of putting out an idea and then saying “oh, not all my ideas are good ones”. So sometimes what you have to do is model risk taking and mistakes.

Thanks so much, Cecilia! Your words were incredibly helpful. Come back next Monday for an interview with a woman whose mission in life is to ensure quality education for girls around the world. (Photo credit to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)