Lessons from a Great Leader:  Michael Brown, CEO of City Year

This post was written by Diana Vining, a second year Duke MBA student and CASE Scholar. Diana reflects on the recent visit from Michael Brown, co-founder and CEO of City Year. Want to hear more from Michael Brown? Check out our CASE Chat with him here.

Throughout the course of our lives we will each come across a few great leaders. If we’re lucky, we get to learn from them more than once. And if we’re really fortunate, we get an opportunity to show appreciation for all they’ve given us.

On February 2nd, I had the opportunity to welcome to Fuqua Michael Brown, the CEO and Co-founder of City Year, the organization I spent 7 years serving with before starting my MBA. As a corps member, senior corps member, and staff member at City Year, I had been inspired by Michael each year as he addressed our community at the national conference. I had met him several times and had always been impressed by his leadership. I was beyond thrilled to bring my two worlds together and have Michael share his wisdom with the Fuqua community through the Distinguished Speaker Series. Here are a few of the lessons I took away from that day.

Believe in the power of young people to change the world

While trying to secure City Year’s very first funders, Michael took a chance and started to recruit the corps members before there was any money to pay them. He remembered, “We knew we could be wrong about anything else and still make City Year a reality, but we could not be wrong about young people.” It was the very application essays of those young people that convinced funders to come on board.

Years later it was the connection that corps members were making with high need students in schools that caused City Year to shift its focus to the national dropout crisis. To this day, Michael makes time in his busy schedule to talk to corps members all around the country, keeping his pulse on the front lines of City Year’s work. While at Fuqua, he intentionally connected with individual undergraduate and graduate students, believing in each of their abilities to make an impact on the world at City Year or elsewhere.

Be humble and surround yourself with a good team

Whenever Michael was asked how he had accomplished so much, he was extremely modest and regularly gave away the credit to others in the organization. He deferred questions to myself and other City Year alumni present believing that our opinions and experiences were valuable. Michael talked about the importance of surrounding yourself with a good team and a good partner, which he found in college roommate and co-founder Alan Khazei. “The difference between one and two is not one, but infinity. Two is a team.” He explained that everything important that has ever happened at City Year, happened because of a team.

Never let others derail your idealism

During his speech Michael advised young entrepreneurs, “Find an idea that you can’t be knocked down from, because the world will knock you down.” He explained that idealism is not naiveté but a commitment to challenging cynicism and seeing the potential for a better world.

In fact when City Year set out to codify its culture into a handbook of stories and sayings, the very first one listed was “Challenge cynicism–wherever you find it.” When asked how he made the hard choice to abandon a successful law career and start a nonprofit he talked about his resolve to make national service a reality. He said, “When you fully commit to something, the world will begin to organize itself around you.” Michael has sustained his passion for City Year for almost 30 years.

I think Michael left each of us that day with a sense of hope and possibility; that no action is too small, no passion too insignificant. And that in our own way, we can each change the world.