What makes a great leader?
Around the WAC, you’ll find leaders who span generations, industries and experiences.
By Darrick Meneken
If you’re looking for insights on how to lead—or how to become a better leader—you won’t find more fertile ground than the WAC Clubhouse. In the following pages, we catch up with WAC members—from former governors to small business entrepreneursóand ask them to share their lessons about leadership. We also sit down with one of the most prominent WAC members of the last decade to discuss her recent time in Washington, D.C., her return to Seattle, and her reflections on leading from the U.S. presidential cabinet.
Sally Jewell’s Seattle story includes a college job making $1.98 an hour renting canoes on Montlake Cut and a turn as CEO of REI. When she left REI to serve as the 51st U.S. Secretary of the Interior, she pivoted from one of the most prestigious leadership positions in the Northwest to one of the most influential in the country. As head of Interior from 2013–2017, the Renton native oversaw 20 percent of the U.S. landmass, 70,000 employees, and an annual budget of $11 billion.
During her three and a half years in the other Washington, Sally remained a WAC member. She joined in 1992. She frequently follows her visits to the Club with a short light-rail ride to a new position at the University of Washington—not far from her old gig renting boats.
We met up with Sally to talk about her time in D.C., getting back to Seattle life, and her deep insights on this issue’s theme of leadership.
You served as Secretary of the Interior under President Barack Obama. What lessons did you learn during your time on the cabinet?
Certainly when I went to Washington, D.C., it’s fair to say that I was naïve about the political process. People said: “These are shark-infested waters. Be very careful. There’s nobody you can trust here.” That turned out to be not true. There are a lot of people you can trust. But there are people that want to manipulate you for their own ends. I learned that early on and had to make some changes to address folks that had an agenda that I think was not fully consistent with what was right for the American people.
You succeeded Ken Salazar, who served in Obama’s first term. How did you get up-to-speed on the job?
I asked people to help educate me. I listened a lot. I did a lot of reading. I have been regularly humbled about my lack of knowledge of the things that I have been charged with leading, and listening and respecting people has never let me down.
The Every Kid in a Park Program, giving a free national parks pass to every fourth-grader in the country, began under your watch. What inspired that move?
My childhood here in Seattle was rich because of the natural world and because of my parents’ and my teachers’ commitment to lifelong learning and nurturing curiosity. The more you can open young people’s eyes to things happening around them, the more they’re going to unlock that curiosity and want to be connected in some way to the natural world. I think that fuels the soul for all of us. There’s no better classroom than the one with no walls. And there’s no better teacher than Mother Nature.
You recently spent some time at Harvard focused on balancing economic success with environmental sustainability. Can those two things really coexist?
You can’t have environmental sustainability without making sure that the economy is also strong. They’re not at cross-purposes; they can’t be. At Harvard, I hosted nine study groups that focused on the different facets of our democracy and civil society needed to steward a future that’s both economically successful, which is important for humans, and environmentally sustainable, which is important for humans and a lot of other critters, as well. How we achieve that future is essential to our survival.
You graduated from UW and also previously served as a regent there. Now you’re a Distinguished Fellow in the College of the Environment. What does that involve?
The world operates in a horizontal and interdisciplinary way, yet academic institutions and the way we train young people tend to be siloed by discipline. The College of the Environment was created a decade ago to knock down some of these silos. My objective is to work horizontally, lecturing broadly and working with students and faculty, regardless of their field of study, to share real-world examples of how they can put their diverse skills to work in shaping a brighter future.
We know you’ve led teams in business and the government, but you’ve also led mountain climbing teams. How does leadership on the mountain compare to leadership on the Hill?
The key word is respect. As a leader, respect people, recognize that they have things to offer, listen to them, and shape your team in a way where everybody can bring their best game. Put a team of people together that brings a diversity of skill sets and perspectives that help make your decisions better—for the organization or the climbing team.
It’s also important that there’s no ambiguity about who is the ultimate decision-maker. Clarity is important. To the extent that teams—whether they’re a team on a mountain or a team in a work group—can collectively reach what they believe is the best decision, that’s fabulous. But there comes a time when it’s not easy to reach a collective decision. And then it’s the leader’s responsibility to take input, to respect different points of view, and to make a call. That’s as true on a mountain as it is in a boardroom.
What leadership lessons would you share with others?
The importance of respecting people, listening to people, meeting them where they are, and figuring out what is the challenge that needs to be addressed. And then ask yourself: How can I bring the skill set that I have to address that challenge? How can I be helpful?
Also, be confident in what you are good at and recognize that there are things that you’re not good at, and allow that to be OK, too.
WAC members share additional insights on leadership. Here’s what they said.
A great leader requires the unique blend of being people-centered, interested in listening, and bringing out insights and engagement from your team. Also, setting the vision for the goals ahead and facilitating buy-in to get there.
Leadership is not taught in law school. As one of 53 independently elected judges in King County, the presiding judge’s authority is granted by peers. I’ve learned to surround myself with people with strengths in areas that I recognize are my weaknesses. Care about getting things done; don’t worry about getting the credit. Be a consensus builder, but be prepared to make hard choices. Be kind. Have a sense of humor. Don’t take things personally.
Seattle Police Chief, 2001–2009
Member since 2001
I took over the Seattle Police Department shortly after the World Trade Organization meeting in November of 1999. As the people of Seattle and those around the world viewed, the protests disrupted the meetings and destroyed property. I took over a force that was the subject of multiple “reviews” of its action and was widely blamed for many of the problems that occurred during WTO. The mission was to rebuild the morale and the self-confidence of what was and is a very fine police department. The lesson: Support the people in your organization. I left with crime at its lowest level in 40 years and many Seattle police commanders who were later recruited to lead police departments across the country.
Maj. Gen. U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.)
Member since 2012
The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.
Good leaders are avid students of leadership, reading management theory, leaders’ biographies, and history. They also look in unexpected places to observe techniques of leadership. Even a bad example is worth studying; now you know what not to do! Understanding that leaders emerge in almost every setting means that we all have unlimited opportunities to grow and change to become stronger and more effective.
Product Delivery Leader and Coach
Member since 2017
Accomplishments are borne by individuals doing good work, but there are limits to what any one person can achieve. Great leaders understand this and focus their energy on helping people come together, lift each other up, and become a team greater than the sum of its parts.
Chief Financial Officer, Deloitte
WAC Chairman, 2005–2006
Member since 1990
We have all come across outstanding leaders. They come in all shapes, colors and sizes. Sometimes it is a coach, a pastor, a work colleague, or even a family member. To me, true leadership is embodied by people who think about the greater good and are not worried about taking personal credit. The output of the team is what really matters. They are also constantly looking to pay forward the lessons they have learned. At its heart, this is the essence of servant leadership, which is the most powerful and sustainable form of leadership.
Effective leadership requires honest self-reflection. Be honest about your passions, skills and weaknesses, and surround yourself with individuals whose expertise you can rely on. Once you have a great team in place, empower them, listen to them, and use the best ideas. Seek a mentor for guidance and support. Most important, protect and prioritize your own quality of life to ensure you sustain the energy and enthusiasm to inspire others.
Founder, Indi & Co. Marketing
Member since 2014
Be vulnerable from time to time. Sometimes you don’t have the answers or know everything, and that’s totally OK. The power is in admitting it and knowing how to solve for the deficit.
Believe in being the change you wish to see in the world. At The Oula Company, we work to inspire this liberation-based approach in the artists, activists and advocates who work for us, collaborate with us, and purchase our products. I’ve always believed in using art and design as a catalyst for economic development. I lead by example and follow my gut. I listen to my customers and members of my team. It makes sense to be empathetic and service-oriented. The Oula Company is a total reflection of my values and lifestyle—this transparency inspires others.
Daniel J. Evans
Washington State Governor, 1965–1977
U.S. Senator, 1983–1989
Member since 1953
Knowledge: Study the issues you face and have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish.
Listen: Carefully to those who you are leading. Many people tell me “I hear you,” but they aren’t listening. Hearing is to perceive by ear while listening is to pay attention.
Respect: It is vital to respect your teammates and important to respect even those with whom you disagree.
Ethics: A high standard of ethics and honesty is vital. Without it, leadership ultimately fails.
As a creative director and business owner, I believe leadership begins with authenticity, inspiration and empowerment. It’s essential to find and encourage the unique talents of individuals and teams. Just as an artist can discern a multitude of shades of blue, a strong leader can truly see distinctive talents and strengths in people. Putting that expertise to use, they work by design to elevate the human experience. The best leaders aren’t afraid to take risks, empowering and challenging people in ways that excite and create growth. That’s where magic can happen.
Whether it’s my hometown peak of Mount Rainier or one of the highest peaks in the world, each climb requires fresh focus and thoughtful planning. Leading these expeditions requires assembling innumerable details and constant attention to keeping the project on track. On the mountain, you need to make snap decisions to adjust to changing conditions, a willingness to accept ultimate responsibility for any and all failures during the project, and a humble attitude toward all parties involved. We are only as good as our last project.
—Darrick Meneken is Content Director at the Washington Athletic Club. Reach him at email@example.com.
As published in the September/October 2018 issue of WAC Magazine
—Posted August 31, 2018