A common interview question is “Who do your admire most.” As I’m in the midst of a job search, I’ve been given this question a lot of thought. Since the answers also have a big impact on my writing, I thought I’d share them here.
What Leaders, Thinkers and Doers do I Admire Most?
While there are many ways to answer this question and a lot of candidates to choose from, I will focus my answer to people influential in the world of urbanism.
Leader: Janette Sadie-Khan
There are several definitions of a leader. Perhaps the most common is: A person who influences a group of people towards the achievement of a goal. While this works in many circumstances, I prefer to take a tighter view of leadership and include somebody in a position of authority or influence. This stems from my military training and my public policy background. With this tighter definition in mind, the leader I admire most is Janette Sadie-Khan
Janette is the current Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation. She has been a key player in efforts to transform New York into a green city focusing on livability and quality of life. Her leadership is clear in her successful efforts to create a pedestrian-only zone around Times Square along Broadway. But perhaps most importantly, Janet has redefined what it means to be a transportation leader. Traditionally the DOT is known as a large bureaucracy run by traffic engineers focused on moving as many automobiles as possible, as quickly as possible. Janet has flipped this formula on its head and is refocusing the DOT on the needs of New York’s residents, not just their vehicles. This is leadership.
Thinker: Jane Jacobs
This one is easy, if a tad cliché. The thinker I admire most is Jane Jacobs. The Death and Live of Great American Cities completely change how we look at cities. But her method of thinking was perhaps even more influential than here writing. Jane emphasized the power of everyday observation have in our thought process. Jane’s true power as a thinker was a result of her innate curiosity, about not only the city around here, but about everything and everyone she came in contact with.
As a result of this curiosity, Jane’s influence as a thinker was not just limited to cities. Indeed I first become acquainted with Jane through here writings on economics and the environment. When I met her in 2004 during her tour for the book Dark Age Ahead, I was struck by the care and depth in the answers to even seemingly mundane questions. While she was doubtless asked the same questions at every session, she took the time to actually observe her audience and surroundings and responds in a meaningful way. To me this is the sign of a great thinker and a skill that we all should aim to emulate.
Doer: Andrés Duany
Andrés Duany is the doer I admire most. This is a controversial pick in that I am not impressed with much of the results of the work that Andrés has involved in (aka new suburbanism). I give him credit, however, for actually doing something, and doing it on a public scale. Too often there is a divide between urban theory and practice. Andrés is influential to me because he bridges this gap. He takes the theory and ideas of New Urbanism and actually puts them to practice through his firm DPZ.
Having spent a day with Andrés, I was able see a side of him that few people are lucky enough to witness. I also had to opportunity to talk with him about my skepticism of several of his projects. His response was t that in order for new—and even ‘old’—urbanism to gain (or regain) a foothold, there needs to be tangible examples to illustrate basic principles that otherwise would be limited to theory. Even if we don’t agree with the outcome of these projects, they became an important part of the public discourse. Moreover through actually doing that other just talk about, Duany learns important lessons that he is able to apply to his thinking and to future projects. As a result, we get better theory and practice. This is the power of doing.
The Personal Touch
Interestingly, I have met two of the three people I admire most in my chosen afield. This is no too surprising. Despite my love of social media for meeting and connecting with people online, there is no substitute for face to face interaction. Getting to know somebody in person helps get beyond their public persona and published work, and helps you understand not just what they have said and done, by WHY and HOW they did it. To me, this is the most important part of influence.
While I have not met Janette personally, I am very familiar with the world in which she operates, having spent a decade working in public sector bureaucracies. Nevertheless I hope to meet her someday soon.