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5 Powerful Lessons in Leadership From 2U Board Member Valerie Jarrett

Written by Molly Forman on Oct 9, 2020

Related content: Leadership

Last week, 2U’s Co-Founder and CEO Chip Paucek was joined by 2U Board Member and former Senior Advisor to President Obama Valerie Jarrett for a keynote at ASU GSV on lessons in leadership and the path forward.

During their 30-minute conversation, Valerie shared her perspective on leadership in the current political climate, why she joined 2U, how her upbringing influenced the way she leads, what it was like working with President Obama and Michelle Obama, and what to expect from the future of higher education. But perhaps the most meaningful takeaway was her leadership advice for young people. Read on for the five leadership lessons Valerie presented.

Listen to your people to gain their trust.

“I think every good leader has the ability to listen. How are you going to lead people unless you understand them, unless you know them, unless you appreciate them, and unless you have a connection with them? Leaders should rest on trust. Why am I going to follow somebody if I don’t trust them? And if I don’t trust them, it’s because I don’t know them. And knowing them is a two-way street. Having that nexus of appreciation of your marketplace comes from listening.”

Practice empathy and appreciate the life paths others have taken.

“I may not have been in your shoes, but I need to be able to imagine what life is like in your shoes. I think empathy is a trait that we don’t have enough of today, and part of it is that we’re in a polarized time in our nation’s history and it’s so easy for people to stay in our comfort zones and only get information that’s going to reinforce what we already think. That’s not how you can lead in a richly diverse marketplace. You’ve got to be curious, and you’ve got to be willing to get into somebody else’s skin and try to appreciate it.

Be courageous in the face of fear.

“You also have to have courage. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is overcoming your fear. We’re all afraid of all kinds of things. I wake up every day scared to death of something, but I have to have the courage to overcome it. And part of that courage means getting outside of your comfort zone and taking calculated risks. I hasten to say calculated because I’m not asking you to go out there and do anything stupid, but I do say that opportunity often knocks at inopportune moments and that you have to have a wide aperture of interest and curiosity so that you can seize on that opportunity when it comes from unexpected corners.”

Earn the right to lead every day.

“You don’t just get a position, become a leader, and rest on your laurels. You have to earn it. And people have to feel that you’re trying to earn it. That means treating them as you would want them to treat you. It is recognizing that you have to absorb pain because the higher you go, the more people inevitably are going to take potshots at you—some of them are potshots, some of them are fair criticism. And learning to listen and absorb that pain without it either destroying your spirit or making you numb to it are also important leadership qualities. If it ever becomes all about you and not the people you are trying to lead, then you are off course, and you have to give yourself a reality check.”

Stumble, fall, and bounce back stronger than before.

“The final thing I would say is—I say this from a lifetime of stumbles and turns and twists and whatever—that life is supposed to be an adventure. Every mistake I’ve made, I hope I’ve learned something from it. Resilience is a really important trait in leadership because if you don’t stumble and fall, you’re not trying hard enough. You are not defined by your failures, you grow in those failures. When I look back, the question I ask myself isn’t, ‘Did I have it all?’ The better question is, ‘Did the chapters of your life add up?’ Did you feel you led a purposeful life? Were you loved? Did you love? Were you a good friend and family member? And did you take chances that led you on an adventure where it was inconceivable at the beginning, but when you look back you go, yeah, that makes sense? That’s what I would wish for all of you.”

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