The 18 students in “Case Studies in Modern Leadership” sat with rapt attention listening to Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as he shared his philosophy for overcoming adversity – a challenge he acknowledged that every leader must face.
“Almost everyone has had that apex moment, where they feel like they’re on top of the world and then the next thing you know, the world’s on top of you,” Villaraigosa said.
“I think the good ones get up from underneath, take the blood off their knees and keep on moving.”
Villaraigosa, sitting casually on a table at the front of the classroom, made a special trip to the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as a guest speaker to talk about his leadership trajectory: from his early years in Boyle Heights to his days as a community organizer, then as a member of the California State Assembly up through his current position.
In this intimate setting, Villaraigosa shared the experiences that shaped his abilities as a leader and what he considers to be his five key “P’s” of leadership: policy, politics, persistence, passion and people.
He also pointed to his mother as his No. 1 influence. Her values, he said, still resonate with him today.
“College was never a question, it was always in her lexicon,” Villaraigosa said. At the time he was growing up, he noted, few people from his neighborhood went to college. “She’d say you can be poor, but no one can ever take away your education.”
At her urging, as a child he would read aloud works by Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe, a practice he said most likely contributed to his animated demeanor and ease in front of an audience.
Villaraigosa’s visit coincided with the course section on early influences of a leader. Students read President Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father, which chronicled his adolescence and career path.
Aaron Baygell, a USC Dornsife senior majoring in international relations, said that the opportunity to listen to the mayor and ask him questions about his own development as a leader was an exceptional experience.
“The most interesting thing was hearing his background,” Baygell said. “I think understanding where he came from, his family heritage, and how it made the foundation for his policies and how he acted in the future was something really powerful to drive home.
“I’d expect this experience on a one to 400-person level, not a one to 20-person level,” he added.
Jelena Grozdanich, a communications major at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said the interaction also gave her a chance to see the mechanics of leadership in action.
“The mayor really takes command of the room,” Grozdanich said. “He looked in everyone’s eyes and tried to make connections with the students while he was talking to us.”
Taught by Dan Schnur and William Simon of the Department of Political Science, students in the course learn essential principles for leadership through a series of case studies on successful leaders.
Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC Dornsife, is one of California’s leading political and media strategists. He has served as the national director of communications for U.S. Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and spent five years as chief media spokesman for former Gov. Pete Wilson.
Simon, professor of the practice of political science, was the 2002 Republican nominee for governor of California and is co-chair of the William E. Simon Foundation.
“Dan Schnur and Bill Simon are very acclaimed people,” Baygell said. “I’m privileged to be in a class with them.”
Grozdanich added: “They have phenomenal backgrounds and a vast knowledge about the topic. They are truly interested in engaging with students and teaching us what they know.”
In addition to hearing firsthand leadership advice from Villaraigosa, this semester’s students will have the opportunity to take pointers from La Opinión publisher Monica Lozano, USC Athletic director Pat Haden and Frank Baxter, chairman emeritus of Jefferies Group Inc., and former U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay.
“We want our students to learn about the skills and attributes that will make them outstanding leaders regardless of the path they pursue: That’s why we read about leaders from such a wide range of fields,” Schnur said. “But even the most fascinating book in the world can’t have the same impact as hearing successful leaders tell you in their own words what allowed them to make a difference.”
The mayor’s visit, which lasted more than an hour and included a question and answer period, brought to life the theories that students will study over the course of the semester.
The mayor’s advice to remain true to your passion resonated with Baygell.
“That stuck with me,” he said. “You can’t lose track of what you’re interested in. That’s got to be your No. 1 focus.”