In this episode of Let Go & Lead, Maril talks with Sylvia Burwell, the 15th president of American University. She shares the leadership principles that have guided her through an impressive and wide-ranging leadership career — from serving as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration to Chief Operating Officer at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to her current role as the first woman to lead American University.
Sylvia and Maril discuss the importance, for a leader, of creating a leadership team that doesn’t look like you, with true diversity of perspective; of being a calm, optimistic presence during crisis; and of taking it on yourself to “see around the corner” as a leader — to ensure your energy goes more toward anticipating the future than preserving the past.
About Sylvia Burwell
Sylvia M. Burwell is American University's 15th president and the first woman to serve as president. A visionary leader with experience in the public and private sectors, President Burwell brings to American University a commitment to education and research, the ability to manage large and complex organizations, and experience helping to advance solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges. Burwell joined AU on June 1, 2017.
Burwell has held two cabinet positions in the United States government. She served as the 22nd secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services from 2014 to 2017. During her tenure, she managed a trillion-dollar department that includes the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and the Medicaid and Medicare programs; oversaw the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act; and led the department’s responses to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. Before that, she served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, working with Congress to negotiate a two-year budget deal following the 2013 government shutdown. In both roles she was known as a leader who worked successfully across the aisle and focused on delivering results for the American people.
Her additional government experience is extensive and includes roles as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, deputy chief of staff to the president, chief of staff to the secretary of the Treasury, and special assistant to the director of the National Economic Council.
Burwell has held leadership positions at two of the largest foundations in the world. She served 11 years at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, including roles as the chief operating officer and president of the Global Development Program. She then served as president of the Walmart Foundation and ran its global Women’s Economic Empowerment efforts. Her private sector experience includes service on the Board of Directors of MetLife.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in Government from Harvard University and a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
A second-generation Greek American, Burwell is a native of Hinton, West Virginia. She and her husband Stephen Burwell are the parents of two young children.
About Let Go & Lead
Let Go & Lead is a leadership community created by Maril MacDonald, founder and CEO of Gagen MacDonald. Maril brings together provocateurs, pioneers, thought leaders and those leading the conversation around culture, transformation and change.
Over the course of the past 12 years, Let Go & Lead has existed in many forms, from video interviews to resource guides to its current iteration as a podcast. At its core, it remains a place where people can access a diversity of perspectives on interdisciplinary approaches to leadership. Maril is also working on a book incorporating these insights gathered over the past several years from global leaders and change makers.
Maril has interviewed over 120 leaders — from business to academia and nonprofits to the arts — through the years. In each conversation, from personal anecdotes to ground-breaking scientific analysis, she has probed the lessons learned in leadership. From these conversations, the Let Go & Lead framework has emerged. It is both a personal and organizational resource that aims to serve the individual leader or leadership at scale.