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The Federal Coach

'Warm but tough': Nannerl Keohane on what makes a good leader

With more than forty years of experience in higher education, leadership expert Nannerl O. Keohane is a leading scholar in political philosophy, feminism and education. Keohane served as president of Wellesley College and later as the first female president of Duke University. Today, she teaches at Princeton University as a Rockefeller distinguished visiting professor of public affairs and has authored several books, including her latest, Thinking About Leadership.

What are the challenges and rewards to being a woman and a leader?

Many of the women leaders that have been most successful have managed to direct people firmly but in a gracious and humorous way. It's the combination of being warm but tough. You have to make decisions, and women have to do it as well as men, so you can't shy away from it. But on the other hand, and maybe even more for a woman than a man, it is important to do so in a way which is occasionally lightened by humor and seems as graceful as possible--even though you're being tough and doing things that people might not like. Women have to try to combine those qualities that are traditionally masculine and feminine.

I encourage women to step forward and not be dissuaded by any of the stereotypes. Go for it. It's tough and it's not easy, but it's very important to have experiences from the time you're a young person because a lot of leading is having had some experience with it. The longer you wait, the more you're likely to see it as a really scary prospect, whereas if you've been doing it from grade school, then it comes sort of naturally.

What are the most important attributes of a successful leader?

I believe there are some traits that are valuable to leaders in almost any circumstance, but traits alone don't make a leader. First and foremost, having good judgment is crucial to good leadership, because there are so many ways in which it matters--in making decisions, identifying good people, foreseeing problems. Other valuable traits include courage, a sense of timing and caring about what you do--having a reason to get up in the morning.

How can leaders best engage and foster success among their "followers"?

Many people, particularly in hierarchical organizations like a government agency or university, are in a middle position where they are both reporting to someone above them but also managing and leading people who are reporting to them. So knowing how to be both a good follower and a good leader is a tricky challenge, but it makes a big difference to an organization. I think the leader at the very top has to set good examples and be a good role model in terms of the way they treat the people who are closest to [them]. This behavior will then reflect down the line.

How can leaders find a healthy work/life balance?

In Max Weber's "Politics as a Vocation" essay, one of his major points is that leaders need both passion and perspective and that the two don't often go together. It's very important to care about what you do, not so that you get fanatically obsessed with it, but so you have a reason to go to work and make things happen. But you also need some distance and detachment so you're not so caught up in your work that you can't see the things around you or recognize that it's only a piece of other good work that may be going on.

We've all known leaders who just don't have a life. They work so hard that they become absorbed in their work; sometimes that can be very productive, but more often it leads to people who kind of get hollowed out because they don't have any other reasons for joy in their life. You need, for your own success, to be a person who has a better-rounded sense of life toward work and sets examples for those around you.

How do you share with your students that government is an opportunity for the next generation to make a difference?

I enjoy teaching [graduate] students who are relatively freshly out of college but have had some experience working in the world: in diplomatic posts abroad, at the FBI or the Coast Guard. I find it quite inspiring every year [that] they made a commitment to spend their lives in leadership in government in one form or another. I hear from these students over and over again that they find it very rewarding as well. So I get them to talk to undergraduates who may be wrestling with what to do with their lives to give accessible profiles of people not much older them themselves who have made this choice and are very glad they did, because it does make a difference.

One of my few regrets about my own life is I didn't have a job directly in government, because I believe firmly that it's a powerful way to make a difference.

By Tom Fox

 |  February 9, 2011; 10:01 AM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

She looks like one of the crazy childless old maids I suffered with in grade school,

Posted by: schmidt1 | February 14, 2011 10:32 AM

"Warm yet tough?" Whatever. I'd prefer competent. But that's a rare trait among the people who think of themselves as "leaders."

Posted by: karlmarx2 | February 14, 2011 10:28 AM

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