MacArthur geniuses discuss essence of leadership

Historically, leadership has been the stuff discussed and practiced by statesmen like Niccolò Machiavelli or military extraordinaires like Sun Tzu.

Cunningness was the rule of the land, and absolute domination was the only acceptable outcome, if anyone wanted to prove themselves to be a credible leader.

However, at Thursday’s MacArthur Fellows Panel organized by the Husky Leadership Initiative, three innocuous-looking individuals offered a more humanistic perspective on leadership — emphasizing altruism, authenticity, and approachability.

Poet Linda Bierds, geologist David Montgomery, and computer scientist Shwetak Patel spoke at the HUB before an audience of more than 30 people.

“The most important thing from a leadership perspective is you have to have people be able to approach you,” Patel said. “Being approachable is absolutely critical [and] if somebody can’t talk to you … as colleagues I think you’re going to struggle.”

The three speakers have been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, a private organization that supports creative people and their potential by awarding select individuals as much as $500,000 — called the “genius grant” — with no strings attached.

“I think one of the interesting aspects of leadership that people often forget is that you are part of [a] team; it’s not that you are one step above somebody else,” Patel said. “You have this role, you have this responsibility, but you are still part of the team or group you are leading.”

Patel became a faculty member at the UW at the age of 25 as assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering and Electrical Engineering.

He is co-founder of SNUPI Technologies, a wireless sensor company that provides various services such as loss prevention, security, and home safety.

Meanwhile, Bierds recalled her earlier years at the UW and how important it was for her to work closely with her literary colleagues.

“There was a sense of unlikely pursuit together and I think that was the greatest thing I learned: how not to put this distance between us, but to work together, especially in a field that is not lucrative,” Bierds said.

She may not be materially wealthy, but Bierds’ resume attests that she is rich with cultural accomplishments. Her poems have been published by The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Smithsonian, among others.

Montgomery, like Patel and Bierds, said he has always believed in the philosophy of treating his students like equals.

Montgomery is a professor of Geomorphology in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the UW. He has coauthored more than 200 scholarly papers, written four technical books, and is a three-time winner of the Washington State Book Award.

“Looking at sort of what I think is the essence of leadership, to me, it’s partly leading by example, but also with the interest of those you are leading prioritized above your interests,” Montgomery said. “You’re trying to bring them up to your level, and treat them with respect to further their interests. I think that’s something that we all too often do not see as the primary characteristic in leadership.”

This story was originally published by The Daily of the University of Washington.

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