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The Journey to Leadership

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Medtronic - MECCA
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

I have entitled my talk for this evening "The Journey to Leadership." It is often said that life, or success, is a journey, not a destination. Similarly, I understand that the name of this resource group — "MECCA" — is not an acronym, but, rather, a concept — the concept of a place important, as much for the journey, as for the destination — and, the sacred pilgrimage toward that goal.

This is a concept which applies, aptly, to leadership.

What mile markers appear on the journey to leadership?

I will begin by telling you a few of the mile markers on my own road to leadership. Then, I will describe the principles of leadership I have gathered along the way, which have worked well for me. I will turn to how we develop ourselves as leaders, and I will conclude with a bit about the need for leadership on what I call "knife edge" issues which confront us as individuals, as a community, as a nation, and a global a society.

I was raised in Washington, D.C., by loving parents who encouraged and inspired me, and instilled in me a lifelong love of learning. I attended D.C. public schools, which, at the beginning, by the law of the land, were segregated. Public schools were desegregated in 1954 by the historic Supreme Court case: Brown vs. the Board of Education, whose 50th anniversary we celebrated last year. This event enabled me to attend the public school near my home, where I was tested and placed in advanced classes. Desegregation occurred at a time the United States was facing an arms race, and a space race, with what was then the Soviet Union, spurred by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. In reality, it was a science race. The convergence of desegregation and the science race opened for me — and for others like me — a window-in-time — an opportunity.

The D.C. public school system, at that time, gave special focus to science and mathematics for all students. I was fortunate. I loved science and mathematics.

I graduated valedictorian of my class and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where I studied physics and eventually received my Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics. My current research specialty is in theoretical condensed matter physics, especially layered systems, and the physics of opto-electronic materials.

This academic background was another mile marker, although, perhaps, I did not yet realize it. It set my feet upon a path. But, where that path would lead — or could lead — was unclear.

Early in my career, while conducting research at what was then-Bell Telephone Laboratories, later AT&T Bell Laboratories, [now Lucent Technologies] in Murray Hill, New Jersey, I participated in several professional physics organizations, becoming involved in governance positions and in broader discussions of physics and research, as well as physics and society. My interest in science and technology, and my overall curiosity, led me to observe what was going on around me in areas of public policy that impacted science and technology. I already had been appointed as a life member of the MIT Corporation (the MIT Governing Board). These experiences led to my being asked to join the board of directors of a utility company in the state of New Jersey.

In 1985, New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean appointed me, as a founding member, to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. The Commission is dedicated to enhancing the state's academic research capacity and technology transfer, encouraging technology business development, and supporting a technology literate workforce. For the next ten years, I served the Commission in various capacities, including on the Executive and Budget committees, and as vice chair of the Scientific Fields Committee. These were among my early experiences in quasi-governmental bodies, with public policy; and I began to learn some of the elements of leadership, and how leadership, policy, and planning come together to drive change.

I believe that teaching correlates with leadership. As I began a professorship at Rutgers University, I began to "teach," which, in one sense, is to "interpret" between two worlds — the world of advanced physics and those who are interested in learning it.

Public policy is another arena for "interpretation" in much the same sense, where one "teaches," or, perhaps one could say, "translates" between two disparate worlds — enabling each to inform the other, so that policy better serves science and technology, and the sciences better serve the public realm.

As I acquired experience in public policy, I came to understand that because of an ability to bridge several worlds, and to be conversant in the language of each, I had become a leader in each. I also had acquired a useful perspective — the ability to step back and take in the bigger picture. This formed, for me, a philosophical basis for leadership.

Then, in 1995, President William Clinton appointed me to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and, shortly thereafter, as its Chairman. At the NRC, I initiated a strategic assessment and rebaselining of the agency, leading to a new planning, budgeting, and performance management system which put NRC activities on a more businesslike footing. I introduced risk-informed, performance-based regulation (which meant utilizing probabilistic risk assessment on a consistent basis), a process which now is infused throughout its regulatory programs. I led the development of a new reactor oversight program, and, with the Commission, created a license renewal process resulting in the first renewal (in March 2000) of the license of an operating reactor in the United States. All of this required an ability to understand the broad policy context nationally and globally of nuclear power and other nuclear activities, and to know how to put enabling processes together to enhance nuclear safety, while undergirding the nation's electricity supply.

During my NRC tenure I, also, spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA). The association comprises the most senior nuclear regulatory officials from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. I was elected the first INRA chairman, and, for two years, guided its development as a high-level forum to examine issues, and to offer assistance to other nations, on matters of nuclear safety. Through INRA, elements of risk-informed, performance-based regulation have been incorporated into the regulatory programs of other nations. Bringing that group together and leading its early development required "interpretation" among cultures, and the ability to see the big picture in terms of global nuclear safety.

In 1999, I left the NRC to become President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Rensselaer founded in 1824, is the nation's oldest technological university. The Institute's historic mission — "to apply science to the common purposes of life" — formed the basis of an important platform for transformation. I led the entire university community — students, faculty, staff, leadership, local officials, community residents and the Board of Trustees in creating a strategic plan — The Rensselaer Plan — to re-position the university, maximizing its full potential, strengthening its offerings, and enabling Rensselaer to achieve prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier world-class technological research university, with global reach and global impact.

Now in the 5th year of the plan, we have:

  • Brought 140 new faculty members to the Institute, 73 of them in new positions, toward a goal of 100 net new faculty positions;
  • Increased research awards from $37 million to $90 million;
  • Greatly expanded the number of doctoral students, and improved the quality of entering students;
  • Initiated more than $400 million in new construction and renovation of facilities;
  • Achieved more than $640 million in gifts and gift commitments, exceeding all previous fund-raising;
  • Addressed, rationalized, and improved every key enabling process.

There is much more I could relay about my tenure both at the NRC and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but this will serve as a general outline of my journey to and through leadership. Along the way I have been asked to serve in other leadership and governance positions such as being President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2004) and now the Chair of its Board, membership on major corporate boards, such as Medtronic, and being elected to the Board of Directors of the New York Stock Exchange, where I chair the Regulatory Oversight Committee. All of my prior leadership and problem-solving and "interpretive" experiences play into all that I do today.

Of course, few achieve anything without mentors and role models. There are several individuals who were my mentors, and who helped to formulate my leadership style — and, these would be yet more mile markers on the journey. Some were, what I call, "unwitting mentors," — individuals who did not mentor me directly, but whose styles I observed to be effective, people whom I admired and emulated. Let me discuss one — Astronaut Dr. Ronald E. McNair.

I knew Ron McNair quite well during our overlapping years at M.I.T., and while, at one time I was his mentor, his values and the way he lived his life, inspired me, in return.

An exceptional achiever, he graduated valedictorian of his high school class, and went on to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University (A&T), studying physics. He graduated magna cum laude and was named a Ford Foundation Fellow and Presidential Scholar. He was intelligent, insatiably curious, eager, relentless in pursuit of excellence, determined to succeed, with a highly developed work ethic.

I came to know Ron in 1970, during the spring semester of his junior year at A&T, when he came to M.I.T. on a program to introduce HBCU students to M.I.T. graduate opportunities. (It was for this experience that I was his mentor.)

But, it was when he enrolled and returned in the fall of 1971, as a graduate student at M.I.T., that I came to know him well. I had an apartment off campus, and a group of African-American students, in both physics and chemistry, would come to my house to study. I was a little ahead of them in graduate school, and had taken many of the required courses already. I would lend them my previous problem sets and old tests, and answer questions. Ron would come to study about once a week. He was a committed, and hard-working student.

He also was an exceptional competitor — a fifth level black belt in karate — who would not permit himself to be defeated. The story about him which best exemplifies this, concerns the time when he was working on his doctoral thesis. One night, he was mugged and lost his case which contained all his data — the accumulation of two years of specialized laser physics research. Despite this setback, he began again, and produced a second data set in less than a year. He never complained, and, in fact, claimed that the second data set turned out better than the first.

Ron received his Ph.D. in physics in 1976 and joined the staff at the Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu, California. There, he continued his work with lasers, specifically laser application in isotope separation and photochemistry reactions in low-temperature liquids.

Two years later he submitted an application for NASA shuttle personnel and astronaut training. Of 8,000 applicants, Ron was one of 35 accepted. Immediately, he faced another setback — he was seriously injured in a car accident and warned that he might miss the start of NASA training. Again, reflecting his personal ethic of determination, perseverance, and achievement, Ron worked hard to recover fully, in time to begin astronaut training, becoming, ultimately the second African-American in space.

In January 1986, he was aboard the Challenger for his second flight, and, we all know, that shortly after lift off, a rubber ring, sealing a joint on one of the solid rocket boosters, failed. When flames reached the liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellant, the Challenger was lost.

It is hard — even in retrospect — to think about that tragedy. But in drawing meaning from Ron's life, I believe we can be inspired by his accomplishments and by his personal ethic, an ethic which propelled him to the highest levels — to the stars, and beyond. These are the sign posts along his road to achievement.

What can we learn from his example? Ron said that seeing Earth from space gave him clear evidence that we are one community, interconnected, and fragile. What affects one, affects all. This lesson teaches us nothing if not that we must care for each other, and for the world community. We would do well to keep Ron's "above the Earth" perspective in mind, for it is an elemental truth, and one too often thrust aside in the rush and crush of events. It is a very important lesson for leadership in any endeavor.

There is a second lesson: Ron believed that pushing the edge of the envelope — pushing technology and challenging ourselves personally to the limit — engages us fully, and stretches our imaginations and our achievements. He believed that the risk is not in the doing, so much as in the not doing. He believed that to remain where one is most comfortable — is the greatest risk of all. His highly developed work ethic and his relentless pursuit of excellence, his determination to succeed — these, too, are leadership lessons.

I have told you a little about my own journey to leadership and a role model in the life of Ron McNair. Now, I would like to turn to some of the principles I have drawn from my life experience, as I have followed the leadership road.

There are five elements — tools for the journey to leadership — which, I believe, are vital.

The first is Vision. One must have the ability to articulate a forward-looking, important, overarching vision for any organization one is privileged to lead, setting the tone and the direction. It must be rooted in a clear-eyed view of the big picture. Vision is the catalyst for change.

The second is Courage. Courage is necessary to aim high (but to remain grounded in reality), to seek wise counsel, and to share the vision. To lead requires the courage to make, and to stand by, difficult choices, and to stay the course.

The third is Involvement. Involving others transforms "the" vision into "our" vision. It is the engagement of all constituencies — to enlist their participation, to profit from their insights, and to harness their creative energies — which gives life and substance to the vision. One needs a team of torchbearers who embrace the mission, who will mobilize others and the resources to accomplish key tasks, and who will generate enthusiasm. Making dreams come true is hard work. Leading means inspiring in such a way that a dream can take shape in the hands of other people.

The fourth is Organization. Creating an appropriate structure to support a changed vision makes new priorities immediately obvious, and establishes an environment in which change can flourish. New structures also provide a psychological boost. A newly created office or division is tangible evidence of a new world order, enabling participants to shift thinking patterns, creating new opportunities for creativity. Language is another powerful force which signals new ways to operate.

The fifth and final element is Action. Action transforms vision, courage, involvement, organization, and leadership into reality. And action leads to movement and momentum for change.

Much is written about leadership, but today's leadership must adapt to the changing environment. Today's global economy, geopolitics, and high speed interactive communications technologies make for an interconnectedness between and among people which requires new leadership skills and qualities. In the past, leadership relied on strength and determination in a single individual. This still holds, but leadership, today, also must address greater complexities at multiple levels, and calls for other skills, as well.

I would like to return, here, to a point made earlier about the ability to translate between worlds, because this is a lesson which applies to everyone. It follows, logically, that thorough knowledge in almost any field or subject can offer opportunity for unexpected career experiences, and for leadership. The abilities to see from the "30,000 mile high" perspective — as Ron McNair did — to bring disparate information and perception to bear on the challenge at hand, to appreciate and value differences and diversity, and to incorporate this great variety in the final outcome, reflect the multidisciplinarity which, increasingly, characterizes the solutions to today's challenges. This is what is required, today, of leadership.

At Rensselaer, where every engineering student is required to have leadership experience, we expose our students to skill-based, interactive techniques which foster effective teamwork ability, and integrity, in professional and personal development. Skills and topics covered include: collaboration, effective communication and feedback, conflict management, team development, ethical decision-making, personal and professional vision development, influencing others, effective communication, motivation techniques, consensus building and negotiation, leading transformational change, and tools to succeed in a diverse organizational culture. We are propagating this approach across all schools in varied ways.

In this context, diversity and differences are valuable for the variety of perspectives which they offer, and lead to unanticipated synergies and opportunities to translate between them.

Today's world and its challenges present, what I sometimes refer to as, "knife edge" issues — issues of technology and defense, science and ethics, politics and choice — issues which require the very best that we have to offer. They require our vision and our courage and, ultimately, they require our leadership — for everyone, ultimately, leads by example, whether that leadership manifests itself as the head of a great organization, or as a participant in a community of others. As we journey on the pilgrimage toward our goal, whatever it may be, our own personal leadership journeys require that we carry the very best tools that can apply — tools that require continuous learning.

If there were one thought I would have you take with you, this evening, it would be the one which President John F. Kennedy had prepared for delivery in Dallas on the day of his assassination. He would have said, "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."

Take this tool on your journey to leadership, and you cannot go wrong.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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