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Columbia University students
Leadership students

Columbia University students

The graduate students contributing here are members of "Leadership Development" at course at Teacher's College, Columbia University, taught by On Leadership panelist Todd Henshaw.

No time for a safe bet

Q: In appointing a new Supreme Court Justice to replace John Paul Stevens, President Obama was seeking someone who could provide intellectual and personal leadership of the liberal block. His gamble in nominating Elena Kagan is bringing in someone from outside the 'priesthood' of appeals-court judges. What are the advantages and disadvantages of selecting a leader with non-traditional qualifications?

Leaders qualifications are not limited to pedigree, status or experience alone. We are not living in a time where "traditional" is the best or most respected choice any longer. New times call for new leaders. Sure, typical characteristics and traits can play a role in the development of a leader; however, cookie-cutter leaders are not always the best option, especially for a government organ that faces serious choices in changing times.

A leader is one who demonstrates proven understanding in an area, has confirmed significant progress in dealing with and adapting to change, and possesses a true interest among connecting with the culture of colleagues and followers.

Selecting a leader with non-traditional qualities can be both good and bad. Without a precise understanding of the culture and politic of the organization a leader can easily find him or herself a fish out of water. For example, a CEO with a traditional engineering background placed into a younger social-networking firm may not fair very well. Though the CEO may have the technical ability and external "think outside the box" perspective, the two just might not match up without possessing the charisma, mentality and ethos that go along with the position and company.

The nomination of Elena Kagan, though nontraditional, does not fall in the category of the CEO above. In fact she has demonstrated that she does occupy the abilities to lead in the Supreme Court. Being a lawyer, the former dean of Harvard Law School, possessing a keen understanding of government and how to run institutions qualifies Ms. Kagan as expert in her industry as much as any of the other current justices.

Though she has a lack of judicial bench experience compared to her esteemed potential fellow justices, and has not yet been put into the battlefield, she has had many successful firsts in her lifetime. Ms. Kagan has had her voice heard on various issues and has demonstrated her readiness to lead.

Coming up the ranks traditionally may be safe. But we are not living in a safe world where safe still works. We need to take chances, make changes and truly think outside of the box. Leaders with different experiences, though not cookie cutter will be able to bring diversity and provide the ability to lead in new times. -- Michael Ellenbogen

By Columbia University students

 |  May 12, 2010; 11:29 AM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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