Ian H. Solomon has had a globe-spanning career as an educator, diplomat, and policymaker, working in places as varied as Chicago and Beijing, and on problems as seemingly intractable as the conflicts between India and Pakistan.
His professional trajectory and passion for leadership led him to a post as the new dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at University of Virginia, and on Thursday night to the stage of Norfolk Academy’s Johnson Theater. The event was co-sponsored by UVA and Norfolk Academy’s Batten Leadership Program.
For his talk on the principles of leadership to students, parents, and faculty, he did not look to far-flung examples from his career, which has included stints as a senior advisor to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and as U.S. Executive Director for the World Bank Group.
Instead, he drew on the life of a visionary leader who grew up in Norfolk and launched his media empire from Hampton Roads: Frank Batten, founder of Landmark Communications and co-founder of The Weather Channel.
Solomon said he was drawn to the helm of the Batten School, a post he assumed in September, because of Frank Batten’s vision. He cited several of Batten’s bold and correct predictions about his industry, such as an increasing demand for customization and a round-the-clock appetite for information, from news to weather.
Solomon quoted from a speech that Batten gave in April 1990, which crystallized innovative thinking that remains relevant today: “To stay ahead of the competition, you need to anticipate changes and take advantage of them.” In the audience were those who knew that thinking well—members of Frank Batten’s family, including his wife, Jane, and his son, Frank.
Solomon outlined five skills that he both cultivates in his own leadership style and seeks to teach:
- The ability to handle change and thrive in rapidly changing environments
- Skill at discerning facts from opinions and falsehoods
- Integrative and interdisciplinary problem-solving
- The ability to work with diverse groups and listen to their needs
- Leadership with an ethical and moral compass
He offered a specific example from Batten’s role as owner and publisher of The Virginian-Pilot as an example of “morally visionary” leadership. In the late 1950s, as Virginia was convulsed by massive resistance, the newspaper advocated desegregation of schools through articles and editorials, despite local and statewide opposition. In 1960, the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for that work. Batten “had the courage to know it was the right thing to do,” Solomon said.
Solomon took questions from students, all of whom are currently serving as Fellows in one of the five focus areas of the Batten Leadership Program: Chesapeake Bay; Global Health; Global Affairs; Literacy; and Engineering, Design, and Innovation. The questions were wide-ranging, touching on multilateralism; miscommunication; health crises, like the opioid epidemic; neighborhood revitalization; and the power of optimism in dealing with difficult, long-term problems that can seem nearly impossible to solve.
“Do you find you can get stuck in a negative state of mind?” said Avery Munn ’20, who works as a Literacy Fellow.
“Yes, sometimes, I do,” Solomon responded. He hearkened back to his time in South Africa, during the years when Nelson Mandela got elected president, after decades of struggle against apartheid. Mandela acknowledged that he was often fearful during that long battle, but “Mandela said that by pretending to be brave, he actually was brave.”
“We find solutions more than we find problems,” Solomon said. “I try to will the positive, and I hope you can too.”