“I’ve always looked to various people—leaders that I admire—and tried to incorporate their best qualities into my life, whether it’s their wisdom, their goodness or their skill. But I understood early on that I also needed to act as my own leader because sometimes the people I elevated disappointed me. There are all types of leadership. The things Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished really resonated with me in my youth. Now I’m playing the musician Don Shirley in Green Book, and I view him as a leader, too. He went on a tour of the South, playing piano, in 1962. Here’s a black man, a piano prodigy who was empowered to say no—he didn’t need the money—but willingly exposed himself to discrimination because he wanted to challenge the stereotyped, limited understanding America had of black people. He sacrificed something for the good of his community.”
—Ali is an actor. He stars in the film ‘Green Book,’ which is out this month.
“Being a leader is so much about how you approach the work. It’s someone who knows inherently the work that they’re drawn to do, work that is in service of others. I think about Barack Obama or Lorne Michaels or Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick is so quiet publicly but he uses every second of every record to say exactly what he needs to say—he’s empowering communities. Bruce Springsteen has conducted his career quietly too, and again there is that sense of morality, a morality that works to empower others. As a musician, you’re creating something new onstage every day, and you want people to reach for something bigger than themselves. It’s about the vision, but it’s also about the work at the center being real. The leaders I look up to are figures who have kept their head down and have continued to quietly create their mission statement regardless of reception.”
—Rogers is a musician. Her debut album, ‘Heard It in a Past Life,’ is out in January.
“My mother would have called herself an activist—she led some protests, she started some neighborhood groups—but she would not have identified with the word leader. I don’t think the kinds of committed political people I grew up among thought in terms of a notion of leadership. It was often substituted with other words, like organizer or activist. The reason those words interest me in their tension with the idea of leadership is this notion of power. Leader implies a power position, and the kind of leadership that attracts me, or seems to me that we’re most in need of, often involves some kind of restructuring or analysis of the function of power. You have to look at the flow of power in a situation before you’re doing anything worth doing, before you can use the word leadership. It has to embed some critical capacity to unmake its own power dynamic—that’s leadership.”
—Lethem is a professor of English at Pomona College. His novel ‘The Feral Detective’ is out this month.
“Leaders inspire and motivate. To do that, you need to be able to paint a vision of the future and what you want to achieve. Ultimately, leadership is listening—the best way to inspire people is to incorporate their viewpoints and needs into that vision. I do think there is some natural talent around it. You have to be able to see the needs in the world and synthesize what you see into a vision. That’s harder to teach. There were a lot of personalities in [Silicon Valley] in 1999 and 2000. There were so many leaders whose names were in the headlines every day that you would run into at a backyard barbecue. I really admired the two Yahoo founders, Jerry Yang and David Filo. It was such an amazing company, but Jerry and David were also just really nice people. They had this immense success, but they remained really grounded and always tried to help the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
—Mayer is a co-founder of Lumi Labs.
“For me a good leader leads by example, rather than by dogma. They stand as a kind of physical embodiment of possibility. I’m old enough to have grown up listening to acts that emerged in the late ’60s—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye. They seemed to have a wide-ranging curiosity and a willingness to experiment, so I grew up assuming that was possible. It wasn’t just being eccentric or an oddball. You could be widely appreciated and do all that at the same time. Although I didn’t want to sound like any of those groups, I took the freedom they exhibited as a given. I was also aware that visual identity was a big element of performance. But I was slow to arrive there. We had to discover ways to move, ways to present ourselves. It took five or six years of little by little trying something and going, Oh, that works, that feels right, that feels like us.”
—Byrne is an artist, musician and filmmaker. His film ‘True Stories’ will be rereleased this month.
“I bought the Beatrice Inn two years ago. I went from player to coach, and it’s been a big learning curve for me. What I’ve learned the past two years is to surround myself with people that are more knowledgeable than me, because I don’t have all the answers—nobody does. I’ve worked in several kitchens, and in doing that you learn what you want to be and also what you don’t want to be as a leader and mentor. I can’t speak for what’s derailed others, but it’s crucial not to buy into your own hype, because at the end of the day you can lose it all. Humility is tremendously important to leadership. I never read anything about the restaurant. I try to instill that in my staff. It’s about the ideas, because there’s always going to be someone behind you who is willing to work longer hours or play the game harder. But the beauty of ideas is that there will never be a shortage of them.”
—Mar is chef-owner of the Beatrice Inn in New York City.