Through the looking glass: Janet Napolitano on leadership

Janet Napolitano shares more than two decades worth of leadership lessons.


Most leaders have one standout job in their career. Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, former Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and former Governor of Arizona, is not like most. She is a leader with five very distinct, successful roles.

Today at the helm of the University of California, she manages an annual budget of US$27 billion. Previously, she led the third largest department in US politics, overseeing a budget of $48 billion and 240,000 staff. She managed 22 agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), US Customs and Border Protection, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US Coast Guard, the Secret Service and cyber security. She was the first female head of Homeland Security after serving as the third female Governor of Arizona for six years, Arizona’s attorney general and the US attorney for the district of Arizona.

Randall S. Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director, Leadership Institute, at a London Business School (LBS) Leadership Institute event, questioned Napolitano on what it takes to be a leader in the spotlight.

Four significant leadership lessons 

1. Find mentors and role models to inspire you

Napolitano was quick to highlight the growing influence of women in shaping policy. “The participation of women in our [US] political process has never been more important," she said.

“Foreign policy, public safety, healthcare, the economy, job creation, education, and the environment:  these issues affect everyone. Today, there are women leading in every part of public life.

“I’m of a generation of women who came on the shoulders of others. When the legal profession in the US was opening up to women and when Bill Clinton was elected and actively looking for women to fill roles.

“I remember the summer of the Senate Watergate hearings about the impeachment passed on TV, I was enthralled – and I remember the women on the committee, Barbara Jordan and Elizabeth Holtzman. From observing the hearings, Barbara taught me about the values of the constitution of the US. It made such an impact on me. That’s why I want more women in public office, because, from my own personal experience, I know how impactful it can be.” 

Napolitano pinpoints why such women inspired her. “They were articulate. They commanded respect.” Ann Richards, the 45th governor of Texas, in office 1991 to 1995 was another influence. She gave a famous speech in 1988 at the Democratic convention about George Bush. “Poor George,” Richards said in her keynote, “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth… the leadership of this nation is telling us one thing on TV and doing something entirely different.”

Napolitano claimed that Richards’ speech, loaded with humour, communicated its point well, and in so doing, taught her a valuable lesson: “The art of telling a story.”

As well as role models from the media to inspire her, Napolitano has active mentors who have supported her throughout her career.

“I have always had great mentors,” she said. “Early in my career, I clerked for a federal judge and she remains one of my key mentors. I moved to Arizona in the 1980s, not knowing a soul, and years later I became governor. That doesn’t happen by accident. Someone had to be responsible for introducing me in the first place.”

2. Learn from your mistakes, lead with humility

“I have made mistakes,” she said, reflecting on the most notable.

On Christmas Day, in 2009, a Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to the US was the target of a failed Al-Qaeda bombing attempt. The passenger tried to set off plastic explosives sewn to his underwear. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Napolitano said that “the system worked”, which was, of course, not entirely her meaning.

“I was asked to go on TV and reassure the public that everything was being done that could be done. I got up at four in the morning – not my best time of day – to speak to reporters on TV. One interview was bad. I said to the interviewer that the bombing attempt had proved that the ‘system worked’. But what I meant to say was that after he [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] was wrestled to the ground in the plane by the passengers, we had systems in place to immediately know every plane that was in the air, every passenger flying in the US and any country in the world – that part of the system didn’t exist prior to 9/11. That was what was in my head, but it came out sounding like ‘well, since the bomb didn’t go off, there wasn’t a problem’ – not the message I wanted to send out at all.

“If you google me, they’ll say ‘she said the system worked’. But what’s important is what came afterwards.”

Napolitano learnt a crucial lesson: how to lead in a crisis, how to say sorry, and knowing when to fix a problem. “I huddled with my team, admitted my mistake and set to work.

“We wanted to find out how he’d got on the plane with explosives. We asked ourselves: what are we going to do about it? That line of thinking led to important work with ICAO [The International Civil Aviation Organization] to get passenger data at the point of embarkation, rather than disembarkation.”

So, number one, have a plan and fix the problem. Number two: apologise. But in the midst of the negative media attention, Napolitano learnt something unexpected – humility.

“I got a personal note from a former cabinet secretary and she wrote: ‘I know this is a tough time, we’ve all been through at least one of these.’ And it was nice to get the reinforcement that life does not end because you made one mistake. But you better have a plan to dig yourself out and whatever the mistake was, fix it.”

Napolitano learnt that when you lead, you have to give yourself a break. Leaders are human beings and people make mistakes. “But hopefully not many mistakes,” she added, “and hopefully not at a critical time or place”.

3. Protect your well-being, prioritise your time 

Today, Napolitano leads a university with 10 campuses, five medical centres, three affiliated national laboratories, and a statewide agriculture and natural resources programme. Throughout her career, she has set up her own staff. So when she says “you need to prioritise your time”, it is advice based on significant experience.

“As a leader you’re pulled in every direction,” she said. “Everyone wants 15 minutes with you – but there’s no such thing – if you let someone have 15 minutes of your time, it’s an exercise in illusion.

“Getting the right people around you will help you solve problems and save you time. You need people that will help execute your vision and be honest with you when they think you’re not fully considering all the potential pros and cons.

“When I became Governor of Arizona I probably didn’t take a day off for the first four months, and they were long days, but I soon realised that I was in a long-haul job.” She was right; it was an eight-year role.

“If I wanted to be as successful as I wanted to be, I needed time to think. You don’t just schedule 15 minutes to think, the brain doesn’t work like that.

“So then you have to figure out how you’re going to have time to think. You need to allocate space to think about your vision, as well as your priorities as the day comes at you.

4. Understand who you’re communicating with, and then, how to reach them

“Working in a cabinet is different from being a CEO,” she said. “Yes you’re the CEO of a huge department, but you’re also part of a team of cabinet ministers and you are executing the president’s vision.

“When I left Arizona as governor, my budget was $1.8 billion. Now my budget is $27 billion a year. But my stakeholder pool has always been large and varied.”

“First, you have to ask yourself who the stakeholders are. When I was secretary, it was chancellors, DHS department heads, and personal staff. But another set are NGOs and private sector partners – like social media companies. You’ve got to reach out to the community, too. How do you reach diverse communities? People are different by gender, faith and creed, so you have to be mindful of everyone’s culture.”

Napolitano’s varied experience allows her to reach such diverse groups.

“As a leader, you need education, but also, you need experiences to shape and challenge the way you think.”

When the culture doesn’t translate, a global lens is even more important. “I think an appreciation of culture, history and context really matters – and it needs to be a global appreciation.

“Finally, I think leaders today need to learn that the fine art of inspiring people without using fear as the source of that inspiration – I’m concerned that we have too much inspiration by fear and not enough by aspiration.”

Aspiring leaders: do you have the ability to reach the hearts and minds of your stakeholders, no matter what their background? Do you value your own time? Can you recognise and learn from your mistakes? And do you have a mentor you can rely on, or a role model to inspire you? These are all leadership lessons from successful a female leader, at the peak of her career: take heed.


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