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Five surprising leaders of 2010

As the year winds down, we're going to stay with our "Best of 2010" series. And this week, we're making the herculean effort of trying to distill all the great leaders who have surfaced in 2010 down to a meager five. While our selections might surprise you, each of these individuals has managed to cut against the grain, been true to his or her unique vision, and somehow galvanized resources to make a positive impact. And some have managed to set the stage for large-scale change that will last well into the foreseeable future.

1. Shaun White
In a World Cup and Winter Olympics year when dozens of athletes floored us with their skill, power and off-field generosity, it's hard to narrow the field down to just one showstopper. From Drew Brees's community-first approach to leading an NFL team to Lindsey Vonn's gutsy gold-medal quest, 2010 showcased plenty of memorable and inspiring performances. But one effort seems to stand out. In a world where stopping the other guys means winning, leadership in sport is often without the innovative grit that true leaders are remembered for. For us, one can't be an innovator without being a leader, and snowboarder Shaun White set the bar in 2010 for creative and inspiring competitiveness.

Creating something from scratch is difficult, unveiling it to the world during Olympic competition is mind numbing, and if White had pulled out as inventive a play in the World Series, NBA finals or Wimbledon, he would be celebrated as one of the greatest athletes of all time. While representing more of a fringe sport, White dazzled for gold on a multinational stage, unleashing the awe-inspiring Double McTwist 1260, and cementing himself as the greatest snowboarder of all time. White's artistry, tenacity and gumption make him an athlete for the ages; and as leaders go, he's yanking his sport to a whole new stratosphere.

2. Lisa Murkowski
It can be jolting to go from sport to politics, but Senator Lisa Murkowski knows jolts. Her political career came to a screeching halt when she gracefully conceded in the Alaskan Republican primary to Joe Miller, a Palin- and Tea Party-backed candidate whose campaign had received large cash infusions from outside the state. Murkowski acknowledged that she made mistakes during the primary and, in what must have come as a surprise to the Miller campaign, announced a write-in candidacy for the November election. Keep in mind that no write-in Senate candidate had won for more than fifty years, so pundits shrugged and looked for the next story.

Her unpopular decision caused her GOP comrades to threaten to strip her of her senior position on the Senate Energy & Natural Resources committee, but Murkowski forged ahead and ran a tactically masterful campaign. She somehow managed to triumph in the general election against Miller, and still must listen to his increasingly desperate cries for a recount. In many ways, Murkowski is a centrist caught between two parties that have become increasingly polarized. She has voted against her party roughly 20 percent of the time, and our Congress needs more folks who are less ideological and more willing to collaborate with those across the aisle.

3. Rebecca Skloot
Prior to 2010, Rebecca Skloot was a little-known science writer. But with the publication of her first book in February, Skloot has hit the national scene with a graceful thud. In writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot is welcomed to our short list of the year's great leaders. In her biography of the woman behind HeLa cells--those scientific wonders that have aided with the development of the polio vaccine, groundbreaking cancer research and advancements in in-vitro fertilization--Skloot tells a human story wrapped in racism, classism and hope.

While The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks may be regarded as one of the finest reads of 2010 (it's even being made into an HBO film by Oprah), Skloot herself shares an interesting story of persistence, compassion and dedication. Tinkering on the project for years after first being inspired in high school, Skloot never abandoned her goal of finishing the book. Often writing in solitude in a cabin in West Virginia, Skloot's efforts seem more akin to giving birth than simply putting pen to paper. And as if her persistent efforts to simply complete the project weren't enough, Skloot worked to establish a scholarship fund for Lacks's heirs, a testament to her compassion for the story she chronicled and the relationships she developed with the people she captured in print.

4. The seven members of the American Energy Innovation Council
The American Energy Innovation Council (AEIC) was first announced in a late April op-ed written by Bill Gates and Chad Holliday, and comprises seven corporate titans: the aforementioned Gates and Holliday, GE CEO Jeff Immelt, Cummins CEO Tim Solso, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers Partner John Doerr, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, and a former chairman of Lockheed Martin, Norm Augustine. The council made an initial splash by urging the federal government to triple its investment in clean-energy research and development, immediately advancing its mission to foster growth in American's energy leadership through public funding.

These business moguls desperately want to produce products for clean-energy consumption, but make a strong case that early efforts in energy research are too risky for private companies. The council made five specific recommendations for government funding in clean energy, such as a $1 billion annual commitment into Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, an established government program focused on energy innovation. While it's highly unpopular to ask the government for anything other than a continued tax break these days, the fact that the US is spending roughly $1 billion per day on overseas oil might quickly stifle objections. Besides, the AEIC argues that once clean-energy technologies are there, private companies will quickly capitalize on the public investments, which would be a win for everyone except those who produce foreign oil. While the AEIC has flown beneath the radar for a while, we're hoping its voice continues to increase in volume.

5. Julie Taymor
Finally, Julie Taymor has been rabidly successful as a stage and film director, but met her match with Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. In this final addition to our 2010 leaders list, we want to recognize the guts it takes to risk time, money and reputation on any one venture. In the musical rendering of the Spider-Man story, Taymor has collaborated with Bono and The Edge, as well as other heavy-hitters in the theatrical world, but can't seem to get past criticism. The production is the most expensive piece of theater to ever hit Broadway; and at an estimated $65 million, it's more than twice as costly as its nearest rival.

Actors have been injured, and there still seem to be looming threats of the show shutting down. While opening dates have been pushed back and the preview seemed a debacle, Taymor just keeps on plugging. For her stick-to-it-iveness in the face of what could be a historic flop, Julie Taymor's leadership vision may prove to be epic.

From sport to politics, the creative arts to business, many leaders have emerged over the course of the year. The ones we listed stood out for their profound impact on 2010 and their likelihood to make a lasting impact well beyond this year. But our list was limited to five, and we know there are others worthy of consideration. Who else should have a place in 2010, and why? Chime in with your comments.

Have an idea for what we should write about next? Be in touch at info@menoconsulting.com, connect with us on Facebook, or visit us at Meno Consulting.

By Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl  |  December 7, 2010; 1:34 PM ET  | Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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