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William C. Taylor

William C. Taylor

Founding editor of Fast Company and co-author of Mavericks at Work, William C. Taylor is working on his next book, Practically Radical. Follow him on Twitter @practicallyrad

Power of the outsider

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?

Full disclosure: I went to Princeton with Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, and we've stayed in touch in the years since we graduated. I consider her a good friend and a great person, so I can't pretend to speak objectively about the virtues she'd bring to the Court.

But as someone who has thought objectively about the challenges of leadership, progress, and change, I can say that the kind of choice Elena represents is precisely the right choice for the difficult and divisive times in which we live.

Time and again, as I've studied the work of successful leaders, I've been struck by the power of the "insider-outsider" someone whose expertise in the field is without peer, but whose actual experience is not a carbon copy of his or her peers in the field.

Today, what truly qualifies a leader is the capacity to bring fresh eyes, a fresh voice, and a fresh point of view to his or her "organization" along with the smarts and expertise to be an unquestioned master of the organization's work.

Let me offer a couple of examples of this style of leadership from other fields. For years, I've been following the work of Dean Esserman, Chief of Police in the city of Providence, Rhode Island. Before Esserman's appointment in January 2003, back when the city was governed by its infamous (and eventually imprisoned) mayor Buddy Cianci, the Providence Police Department was legendary for its incompetence and corruption. Under Esserman, it is widely recognized as a model of professionalism, innovation, and results. As Governing magazine noted, "Esserman has taken a department that was widely seen as corrupt, only sporadically effective and isolated from the community it ostensibly served, and turned it into a nationally respected force for civil order."

Here's what's interesting. Dean Esserman never worked as a beat cop or a detective, the traditional starting point for police commanders. Instead, trained as a lawyer, he served as general counsel for the New York Transit Police, where he found a mentor in Bill Bratton, who would go on to become chief in both New York and Los Angeles. There's no denying Esserman's expertise, he is one of the founders and long-time voices in the "community policing" movement that has transformed law-enforcement. But he came to Providence explicitly as an outsider, from the city's sordid political past and from the established norms of cops on the beat. This "insider-outsider" status has made him a powerful force for change in a city that was desperately in need of change.

More recently, outside Detroit, another famously troubled city, the Henry Ford Health System decided to build its first new hospital since the original downtown facility was built in 1915. It wanted the new hospital, called Henry Ford West Bloomfield, to be truly state-of-the-art, a world-class medical center. So it chose, as its CEO, Gerard van Grinsven, who had spent a distinguished career as an executive with the Ritz-Carlton hotels.
Early on, the new CEO's arrival was met with skepticism, even hostility, from the health-care establishment and the media: How can an executive move from hospitality to hospitals? But Henry Ford's leadership turned the question around: How can you build and run an exceptional hospital with the same old ideas about design, service, and quality?

Sure, van Grinsven was an "outsider" when it came to hospitals. But he was a world-class "insider" when it came to having mastered the expertise to deliver great customer service, recruit and motivate an exceptional staff, and design experiences that left people feeling better when they left than when they arrived. Notably, barely a year after it opened, van Grinsven's hospital is already registering patient-satisfaction scores in the 99th- percentile of hospitals nationwide.

I'm not sure President Obama was thinking of the "insider-outsider" style of leadership when he nominated Elena Kagan. But the fact that she is both a master of the substance of the law yet not steeped in the "priesthood" of judging makes her a truly compelling choice,not just as a Justice, but as a symbol of the kind of leaders who make things happen in any field.

By William C. Taylor

 |  May 10, 2010; 1:25 PM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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