What developmental qualities of leadership are critical for success today? How can you lead regardless of your position or title? How do we ensure that the leaders we nurture and support represent the diversity of our communities?

In this conversation, Mariko Silver, President and CEO of the Henry Luce Foundation, and Ian Solomon, Dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, discuss what constitutes effective leadership, spurred by the context of the 50th anniversary of the Luce Scholars Program.

Silver and Solomon discuss the importance of curiosity and the value of experiential learning, such as the Luce Scholars Program. They also challenge traditional leadership views and advocate for a more open, exploratory approach.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. The full interview is available here.

  1. Leadership through experiential learning
  2. Curiosity as a starting point for leadership
  3. Leading from any position
  4. Inspiring and leading different groups
  5. Feelings and compassionate leadership
  6. Diversifying leadership ranks
  7. Embracing the unpredictable

Leadership through experiential learning

Mariko Silver: I wanted to take this opportunity around the 50th anniversary of the Luce Scholars Program, which is, as you know, a leadership program that sends 18 young people to Asia for work placements and language training every year to places with which they are unfamiliar or largely unfamiliar. The scholars have an immersive leadership experience, not because they’re leading organizations necessarily but because they are learning what within themselves enables them to lead, regardless of whether they have, as you have said, positional leadership or not. So, let’s talk today about what you view as the developmental qualities of leadership.

Ian Solomon: At the Batten School, I aim to replicate experiences akin to the Luce Scholars program—creating global experiences where people step out of their comfort zones to immerse themselves in another culture, language, and environment. You can learn a lot about yourself and this broad, wonderful world by doing that. One of the most important ways of developing leadership is by doing.

One of the most educational moments arises when you’re trying to achieve something that requires the cooperation of others. When do I need to take the initiative, when do I need to inspire someone else to take the initiative? When is my leadership about a decision I have to make and when is it about creating space for someone else to make a decision? The leaders I admire have shown the ability to navigate different situations, constituencies, and objectives to improve the world.

Curiosity as a starting point for leadership

Mariko Silver: What’s your take on curiosity in enabling all those leadership stances and engagements that you just described? When we revamped the Luce Scholars Program and articulated our mission, one of the core elements we pointed to was exploratory curiosity. Why do you think curiosity is essential?

Ian Solomon:

I got there from my work in conflict resolution. When you believe you have the answer, you’re basically closed. I’m motivated by some of the theories in Zen Buddhism that embrace the notion of not knowing. When I’m in a place of not knowing, I’m open, willing to hear your ideas and explore your solutions to a problem.

I also believe in scientific discovery, creating hypotheses, gathering data, and predicting patterns. But our orientation should be about the following: What don’t I know here? What can I learn? What can a mindset of exploratory curiosity expose me to that I didn’t know before? I consider myself not an expert on leadership but a student of leadership.

So, if we want to cultivate influential leaders who can bridge divides and foster peace, I think we want more of them to be open and not closed. To be about what’s the question I should ask as opposed to what answer I should give.

Mariko Silver: Yeah, I love that. Combining that with the experiential learning focus creates a different kind of hopefully lifelong substrate for bringing in new information. How does that land with the Batten students? I assume that they are all high achievers. Like Luce Scholars, they have come up in a system oriented towards knowing the answer or pleasing the audience with the correct answer or the proper articulation, even of a problem or question. And you’re asking them to focus on something other than being right as a primary goal but on being open. While they may have an impulse or an instinct in that direction, it’s not necessarily something they have grown up seeing in the public sphere as the thing most valued in leadership or about leadership. How do you frame that to them?

Ian Solomon: I hope and aspire to frame it with some humility: There is not a specific answer about leadership, and people should reflect on their own lives and consider who has inspired them and who has exercised the type of leadership that they have been moved by. Frankly, we need to understand what might be considered pathological leadership styles. I don’t want students to necessarily copy or mimic them, but we should understand people who are not exercising leadership to maximize human flourishing, but are instead doing so for small groups of people to advance the interests of just their tribe or just their financial situation. The leadership I want to be inspiring is pro-social leadership, which is about the flourishing of all living beings, not just humans.

Leading from any position

Mariko Silver: Beyond the traditional leadership models, some artists and teachers are finding ways to impact the course of human events through leadership. Can we identify those moments of leadership? We want to say that anyone can lead from anywhere, right? It’s not about your position or your authority.

Ian Solomon: It’s about a choice you can make at some point today to take responsibility for yourself and others in making or managing change. How do you want to make that choice?

The real effective leader is the one who asks the provocative question. There’s a colleague who’s going to be joining the faculty at the Batten School soon. We recently discussed artificial intelligence and the new large language models like ChatGPT. These tools will have the answers, and a vital skill we need to develop is coming up with the right prompt. We will need to know how to use these machines to get meaningful, practical, and helpful information.

Inspiring and leading different groups

Mariko Silver: I’ve heard you say that changing habits of thought and behavior is the work of leadership. To me, that implies, and I think this is part of what you were saying about asking questions, listening, relationships, and relationality. How do you talk with your students and other folks about that element of leadership?

Ian Solomon: Well, really, it’s wanting them to think about the relationship. How you lead among a group of friends may differ from how you lead among a group of skeptics. An effective leader will be paying attention to the group’s motivation. Are they more likely to work with me because they feel some identity based on friendship, family, racial identification, or based on hierarchy? There may be some groups where I need to lead by humanizing myself and tell you about my family and about some of the experiences I’ve had and some of my pain and show a lot of vulnerability because that’s where we’re going to build that trust. There may be others where that would be a counterproductive strategy—a group that needs more clarity of instructions and less bonding.

Feelings and compassionate leadership

Mariko Silver: Let’s talk about feelings a little bit. I have had the opportunity to watch you teach and speak to students through Zoom. You talk about your family history, and feelings about it. Is that something that has come to you more recently, or did you also feel confident doing it as a younger person? Sometimes, we look at leaders and think they’ve always been this way. But in fact, we all evolve.

Ian Solomon: When I was the U.S. Executive Director of the World Bank in the Obama administration, I gave a lot of speeches. My team member, who had been a candidate for Congress, would help me with my speeches by encouraging me to include stories. He would always say tell your story. Initially, I resisted. How is my story relevant to this group of people here?

In that process, I learned that people want to relate to you as a human being. If you create that humanizing connection, it makes everything else you say more easily absorbed.

But it’s still uncomfortable sometimes. It is also possible to overshare and get more personal than the audience is prepared for. You have to read the room and prepare before you go talk.

Diversifying leadership ranks

Mariko Silver: You and I have discussed the value and complications of diversifying the leadership ranks over the years. How do you think about and discuss the importance of diversity in leadership within the context of the Batten School?

Ian Solomon: It’s a great question. Part of the work, I think, is that you have to fill the room with people. You have to bring in new voices, and you’re not always going to get a perfect set of perspectives there. But you have to start somewhere. And with a level of focus, discipline, and deliberateness, that we’re going to bring in some people who’ve gone to different schools, grown up in different communities, and those who, by virtue of how they might appear, have been on the margins of different groups more often. We’re going to value, encourage, and welcome those voices and do our best to make it safe for those voices to be heard and to encourage them

Is this a safe place to work where, regardless of their background, people willing to bring their full selves to work? That question is relevant not only to people from marginalized backgrounds but to every single human being I’ve ever worked with.

I try very hard here at the Batten School to create a “we the people” population so that we actually represent “we the people” with all its diversity, regional diversity, religious diversity, and economic perspectives.

But what are your thoughts on this?

Mariko Silver: This is also a core commitment of the Luce Scholars Program, which is now in its 50th cohort. The Program has always prized diversity in professional ambition and interest. It was never a Program, let’s say, only for future diplomats or only for future businesspeople. It’s artists, filmmakers, architects, businesspeople, and doctors. Over the 50 years of cohorts, it always had, until recently, a structure of nominating institutions, creating a funnel. And so, a couple of years ago, we decided to move away from that as a model. It’s now an open competition. We want people from a diversity of institutions, a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds. We also want people who are further on in their careers. It’s still a relatively- speaking early career program. We raised the age to 32, as the ceiling, but also within three years of your B.A. So, if you go back to school later in life and you’re making a pivot, we want to encourage and support that.

My experience is that those people have extraordinary leadership skills because they have incredibly deep experience—and life experience. We want to help them have a new life experience, if that’s where they’re headed, and an immersive experience in Asia if that’s something that is going to add to their capacity to help lead all of us from wherever they sit.

We want to open the funnel rather than narrow it. And our job as philanthropy, not just in the Luce Scholars Program but across everything we do, is to open the aperture, to widen the networks.

Embracing the unpredictable

Ian Solomon: And I assume with the 50th anniversary of the Luce Scholars program, that’s a great invitation to reflect on where you’ve been and where we’re going, and how the world has changed and may create new opportunities and new ways of thinking about how we select them, and also how they’re going to contribute back to this country, to the world.

Mariko Silver: Yes. We’ve heard great feedback from scholars across all years about how excited they are to see the Luce Program embrace the same values but rethought for the next 50 years. If you aim to be a leader from whatever position, being able to be resilient, pivot, undertake the kind of improvisation you were talking about before is essential, and beingbe able to listen for new things. Because when you’re somewhere you’ve never been, everything is new, so it’s a real leap of faith.

I’m enormously admiring of the scholars. They are curious. And I hope that they cultivate those habits over a lifetime. Some end up going into U.S.-Asian relations or something related to Asia, but many don’t. But they take that experience with them in ways that, even by their reports, are somewhat unpredictable. And that’s okay. That’s great because life, it turns out, is unpredictable.

Ian Solomon: Life is unpredictable, and as people, we, too, are unpredictable. That’s where the humanity lies. That’s the poetry. That’s the art.

I’m hoping that the Luce Scholars Program and the Batten School can nurture people, support them, and provoke them to look for what’s surprising, what’s different.

Mariko Silver: Yeah. Knowing exactly where you’re going. What’s the fun in that?