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Great thinkers who are also great leaders

The title of Robert Kelley’s piece in the New York Times was “Not Leadership Material? Good! The World Needs Followers.” I had to read it.

Kelley makes some excellent points about high school students feeling compelled to demonstrate that they are great leaders or risk not being accepted to their college of choice. He argues that great thinkers who are not leaders are being screened out of colleges that should embrace them. With a shortage of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians extant and projected to grow for the foreseeable future, it strikes me that we should take Kelley’s point of view seriously.

But, there was something else that occurred to me while reading the article: it’s not a binary choice. One can be both a thinker and a leader.

There are great thinkers who create masterpieces (Monet), compose fantastic music (Mozart), or develop new scientific theories (Einstein). However, there are also great thinkers who lead organizations or provide thought leadership to their cohort.

While the mark of great thinkers is to conceive of new ideas, to outline ground-breaking concepts or to create works of art, great leaders are those who are willing to engage, are good listeners and are open to new ideas. They are also great communicators who can convert the complex into simple forms on which people can take action.

I have met many who fit both profiles. Here is a select sample of three.

Charles B. Kreitzberg, Ph.D.

Charlie’s academic credentials jump off the pages of

his CV. After earning his masters degree in computer science, he went on to earn his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. Not content to live in the academic world, he founded Cognetics Corporation in the nascent days of personal computing (remember the Apple II?), as a consulting company focused on intuitive user interfaces. The company’s first product – Computer SAT, developed for Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich – was on the PC magazine best-seller list for over 6 years.

Like all successful leaders, Charlie can articulate ideas so that we embrace them. Aside from his leadership role at Cognetics, he is a published author and sought-after advisor in the field of human factors.

Though it was a small consultancy in Princeton, NJ, Cognetics won national awards recognizing its work in usability engineering and earned business from the likes of AT&T, Hewlett-Packard and Citigroup.

Charlie now co-leads the Center for Agile Thinking.

He was the first person I thought of when I needed someone to write the introduction for my book.

Cara Holland

When I first heard that our little division of the bank had hired an expert on quality, I

thought, “Oh no. Not another expert!” Yet, Cara won me over through a series of insightful conversations. She was the only outsider welcome at all my staff meetings. She added value because she knew how to translate her expertise into actionable, bite-sized chunks of wisdom.

She was always welcome because she was engaging. And, she could always be helpful because she never talked down to people who knew less than she. She possesses a unique ability to convey value to anyone who works with her.

To be empowered, she taught us, one must (1) know how to, (2) be allowed to and (3) want to. Simple! It takes a complex idea and presents so that anyone can understand.

Her success was based on her ability to influence others, not through organizational authority but rather by engaging, persuading and demonstrating the value of her ideas.

Now retired, she devotes her time to rescuing big dogs and harassing her husband, a West Point grad who no doubt deserves it.

Kathy Muscato

Kathy is a connector who started in politics and proved her mettle as an entrepreneur. As co-leader of Brand Cool, a

Rochester Top 100 company, she was able to respond to the challenge that undoes many small marketing and PR firms. She developed a culture and organizational process that was both creative and productive.

When she first showed me how she deconstructed the traditional hierarchical organization chart, reconstituting it in overlapping circles to illustrate how different groups must collaborate to be successful, I was blown away. I encouraged her to write a book.

Creativity can only be nurtured, not manufactured. The culture of her company had to be positive, perhaps uplifting. Brand Cool didn’t hire staff. It hired ‘Cools’. And, only certain people qualified as Cools. Using both art and science, she assembled a team that rarely skipped a beat despite the challenges encountered by fast-growing companies.

Now retired and always the life of the party, she remains busy – always busy!

These three and many others have inspired in my life and work. How about you? Who were the great leaders and thinkers in your life?

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