On December 5, at historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., a diverse group of seven leaders notable in their respective fields, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Ahmed Zewail, took to the stage to discuss their views of the qualities that make a leader. All seven received the 2011 Top American Leaders Award from the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Washington Post Live, honoring those who motivate people to “work collaboratively to accomplish great things.”

“It’s important to signify to others what is exemplary about people who make a difference in our lives,” said Michael Useem, a Wharton management professor and director of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management, who served on the award’s selection committee. “Identifying why a leader deserves this distinction is a way to send a message to all of us to think about our own development and what to value when it comes to leadership.” Useem noted that the award’s selection criteria reflect academic research on leadership qualities that emphasize strategic thinking and mission-setting, looking beyond one’s self interest and inspiring others to act.

The seven Top American Leaders imparted their wisdom about leadership, including some very personal observations on how they came by the passion that inspires their work and on what irks them most about public life. Common in all their views is that leadership is about serving more than one’s self. Insights from the winners follow:

Governor Chris Christie gained attention in American politics for succeeding where politicians in Washington have failed. Working with a Democratic state legislature, the Republican governor has reduced his state’s budget deficits since taking office in 2009. The national fiscal crisis is “a failure of leadership by everyone,” he said. Of President Obama, Christie noted, “I don’t think he has much idea how to use executive power. You’ve got to be there. He’s completely absent from the debt and deficit conversation.”

The most important aspect of winning the confidence of the public is “telling the truth,” Christie said. “Style is part of it, too. It doesn’t hurt to be entertaining once in a while.” When asked which politicians are not telling the truth, Christie quipped, “We only have 20 minutes.”

Speculation had run rampant that Christie would run for president in 2012, although he has repeatedly said he has no intention of doing so. “Running for president, at core, is a personal decision,” he noted. “You must feel absolutely ready, [feel that] this is something you must do. If I don’t feel it here, I have no business doing it just because I see a political opportunity.” When asked if he might feel it later, he added: “I might have indigestion later. I don’t know what I’ll feel later.”

Sheila Bair, who served as chairperson of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) from 2006 to July 2011, took steps unpopular with Wall Street to protect U.S. depositors and the financial system during the financial crisis. But the Kansas native and one-time staffer to former Senate Republican Robert Dole, was popular with her own employees. The FDIC ranks as the happiest workplace in the U.S. government. Bair said one of the most important parts of leadership is to “define mission and provide clarity of purpose,” which at the FDIC is the protection of U.S. depositors. The most important financial reform needed today is “banks need to be able to fail,” she stated. “The market needs to understand that. Big is not bad in and of itself, but it should be the result of market forces,” not a regulatory safety net.

Both Bair and Christie bristled at the role that physical looks play in public life. Bair recounts undergoing a two-hour photo shoot for Vogue while she was at the FDIC, only to be told later that the feature would run online only and not in the print edition. Later, bloggers sneered that she was not attractive enough to get into the glossy fashion magazine. Christie chimed in to deride those who say he is too fat to run for president. “It’s idiotic,” he said. “It is one of those last remaining vestiges of prejudice and stupidity.”  

Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, the search engine company’s think/do tank, made his mark as the youngest-ever member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff. Cohen understood the power of social media in spurring the 2009 Iranian uprising after the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and then the Arab Spring that followed. Recalling his epiphany about technology and freedom, Cohen recounted a trip to Iran while he was in graduate school. He noticed young Iranians texting each other through Bluetooth, normally used in the U.S. for hands-free calling while driving. In 2009, the government had shut down the Internet and SMS, and the only technology that worked was Bluetooth, a peer-to-peer standard that does not travel through a telecommunications provider. When Cohen asked the Iranians whether they feared discovery, they said, “Don’t worry, nobody over 30 in this country knows what Bluetooth is,” Cohen recalled. The experience inspired him “to see leadership in a new way.”

At Google, Cohen continues to see problems in a different way. He convened 84 former extremists from 40 countries to speak out against extremism. “No one bothered to organize them, because it’s risky,” Cohen stated. The reason young people join extremist groups has “nothing to do with ideology but [with] simpler grievances — isolation, alienation, broken homes, being picked on at school, having no alternatives.” Young extremists tell him, “If someone had given a reason not to join, they wouldn’t have initially. We’re missing an opportunity to plant a seed of doubt.” Next at Google, he would like to organize unconventional bedfellows in narcotics, human trafficking and other illicit networks with the hope that transparency and technology can expose and cripple them.

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars program to equip promising minority students with the skills to pursue advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, resulting in high numbers of African American students earning doctorates in those fields. A self-proclaimed “child leader” in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, Hrabowski said his job is “to teach children you don’t have to be rich to be brilliant.”

He noted that the more time young people have spent growing up abroad, the harder they seem to work. Seeing others’ work ethics helps American students focus their efforts. He compared two Nigerian students on campus, one who grew up here, and the other who went back to Lagos for boarding school. The U.S.-raised student greets the university president with “What’s up, Doc?”, while the Lagos graduate says, “How are you today, sir?” In other words, he is saying, “‘How high do I jump? I’m ready to work,'” Hrabowski noted.

Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts since 2001, knew from age four that he wanted to be an “arts leader.” Kaiser turned around the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theater and other arts organizations, but found his true inspiration in Barney Simon, the founder of South Africa’s Market Theatre who was instrumental in bringing the musical, “Sarafina,” and the plays of Athol Fugard to audiences around the world. “Leaders are not about doing good for yourself, but [about] creating change,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser revived the Kennedy Center’s artistic offerings, but not necessarily by giving audiences what they already know they like. “Most people, when asked what their best arts experience is, say it’s something that surprised them,” he noted. As an example, he pointed to the fact that the Kennedy Center two years ago sold 90% of the tickets for its Festival of Arab Culture, which featured artists that few in the audience knew.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, aims “to make people spill their coffee in the morning” by shining a “spotlight on something that is off the agenda and help put it on the agenda.” After joining the Times in 1984, he won his first Pulitzer with his wife Sheryl Wudunn for covering the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement in China. He won his second Pulitzer after becoming a Times columnist in 2001, covering the Darfur crisis in Sudan, human rights and other topics. A trip to Cambodia as a young reporter opened his eyes to the horrors of human trafficking. There, he saw kidnapped girls being auctioned. Kristof, who grew up on a sheep and cherry farm in Oregon, credited his parents, academics at Portland State University, for first opening a window to the world and for instilling his belief in education as a lever for change.

Ahmed Zewail, Nobel Prize winner and professor of chemistry and physics at the California Institute of Technology, came to the U.S. from his native Egypt in 1967 to earn a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. Having grown up between Alexandria and Rosetta in Egypt, he attended the University of Alexandria on a scholarship. His “whole ambition was to become a university professor.” Recalling his youth in Egypt in the heady days under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, he said: “The whole country was dreaming at that time.” Zewail later got academic positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University and now Caltech. He won the Nobel Prize in 1999 for making it possible to observe atoms in motion in a millionth of a billionth of a second. A decade later, President Obama named him the first U.S. science envoy to the Middle East.

“We cannot limit our dreams to our personal gains,” Zewail noted. “My most complex dream: The transformation of Egypt to regain its past glory and to participate in the modern world. Only with a renaissance in education would my nation become a knowledge based society.”

When asked where leaders develop their passion, he said, “It’s something we are born with somewhere, [that is] shaped and polished by our teachers and by our parents. Something … innate allows [these leaders] to dream more than others.” On how to win a Nobel Prize, he noted: “If you really think about getting the Nobel Prize, you will not get the Nobel prize, certainly not in science. If you just go with it, develop your own passion and focus, you may have a chance.”