Danielle Harlan – Founder & CEO, Center for Advancing Leadership & Human Potential

Danielle Harlan

Danielle Harlan is the author of “The New Alpha: Join the Rising Movement of Influencers and Changemakers who are Redefining Leadership.” She’s also the Founder & CEO of the Center for Advancing Leadership & Human Potential. 

Growing up in a small oceanside town in California, Danielle’s perspective was slowly shaped by the conglomerate of open-minded, thoughtful people surrounding her, inviting her to question how she can go above and beyond individual success to truly benefit her community. Before pursuing a masters and PhD, Danielle worked for Teach for America and taught special education in a fairly under-resourced area of San Jose. She feels like she derived purpose and also gave back to her community through this area of strenuous, yet rewarding, work.

Danielle says leadership and human potential have been woven into everything she’s done, right down to her doctorate-level dissertation for a Stanford PhD in political science. After earning several degrees as the first person in her family to graduate from college, Danielle wrote and published her book, as well as founded The Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential. Danielle’s work as both an author and CEO focuses on what our responsibilities as human beings are to others. They also focus on how we can maximize our impact on others through leadership.

Show Highlights

  • 3:17 – Growing up
  • 5:56 – Teach for America: How Danielle decided to teach kids with special needs
  • 11:50 – Challenges with the curriculum when teaching
  • 14:20 – The Carnegie Foundation
  • 17:38 – Breaking away from that impactful work to pursue social science & leadership
  • 23:55 – Data from Gallup: getting better employment satisfaction scores & productivity
  • 25:16 – The “Traditional Alpha” leader
  • 29:00 – The three core focuses of “The New Alpha” book: personal excellence
  • 39:50 – How to best help a leader who’s accustomed to traditional leadership styles
  • 45:30 – The most selfish thing leaders can do
  • 48:00 – Prioritization of health, wellness and stress management in leadership roles
  • 59:00 – A Grateful Dead comparison in marketing
  • 1:05:50 – Danielle’s hidden talent

Show Links

Danielle Harlan Podcast Interview

Give us a sense of who you are as an individual, in addition to this great work you and your team are working on. 

I’m here actually in the bay area in California, but I grew up in a little coastal town called Big Sur. And it’s interesting because at the time I just thought, “Oh, it’s a beautiful place to grow up by the ocean and the redwoods and all that.”

But Big Sur is actually known as the seed of the human potential movement. There was a lot going on there in the ’60s and ’70s. But I grew up in that community of open-minded, thoughtful people. They really thought, “What are my roles and my responsibilities to my community?” It certainly shaped my perspectives as an adult in a deep way.

I went on to the University of Maryland on the east coast. I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. Anyone who’s had the opportunity to attend college can sort of attest to this, but it was a point in my life where I realized, “Wow, what an incredible amount of privilege to have this education, to be surrounded by so many amazing people and great organizations.”

That also really got me thinking about my responsibilities to others, now that I have this privilege.

And so through University of Maryland, I found out about Teach for America, became a special education teacher and then went on to grad school because I really wanted to better understand the issues. I did my doctorate and master’s degree at Stanford, and studied political science.

All of this seemed so random; at the time, I was just following gut instincts, but I think leadership and human potential were woven into everything that I did — even down to what my dissertation was on in political science — I looked at leadership on the Supreme Court, group decision-making, all of these things that at the time just seemed interesting and cool. But later, that research came into play in such deep ways: my leadership roles, and then also writing “The New Alpha” book and also founding the Center for Leadership & Human Potential. It revolved around how leadership can really help us maximize our impact in the world and solve the problems that we care most about.

At what point did the Teach for America pursuit come into play?

I remember sitting in the car with my mom in the early ’90s right when Teach for America was new. She said, Hey, I heard about this program for teachers. I honestly didn’t even think about that conversation until so many years later when I was in college, when there were Teach for America recruiters on campus.

The reason I connected with the ideas behind that organization and the reason I still do stems from being the first in my family to graduate from college. I saw how that experience gave me access to resources, jobs and a network that many people didn’t have. Many smart people didn’t have the opportunities I did, who were probably much more intelligent and competent than I was. Just because I have this college degree my world is forever different. And so I felt like I wanted to really pay it forward. I got a lot through great mentors and teachers and professors. Being able to give back gave me a sense of purpose and still does.

One of your first teaching gigs happened at a relatively under-resourced part of San Jose, and it involved teaching kindergarten students with special needs. So, why special needs? Why in an under-resourced area?

I remember when I was a special ed teacher full time, people were always like, “You must be a saint.”

I’ll tell you honestly that when I joined Teach for America I didn’t think I’d teach special ed. I had a really naive view of what special education was. Overall, I just assumed it was the most challenging and most intense. Technically, there are many categories of learning differences that fall into special education. So, when I got to San Jose, they said they assigned me to the English and Social Studies middle school. Every teacher’s dream, right?

But they actually said they have a really high need in special education. “Would you consider doing that?” My background wasn’t in education. The school district and Teach for America said they’d train me, and they could give me the skills and confidence needed to be successful. That is, if I was willing to do it.

Teach for America itself is a two-year commitment, and I knew I wasn’t going to be a full-time classroom teacher. I didn’t know that teaching would become a deep, integral part of myself as a human being and a leader. I thought, well, I have a limited amount of time in this experience. So I want to throw myself in in a way that I feel is going to make the biggest impact.

And it turns out that special education was a great choice and a great way to make that impact.

Also personally, I got so much more out of that experience than if I’d chosen something less challenging. Working with students with learning differences challenged me to find ways to help people reach their potential that didn’t follow the conventional path. All of them were so brilliant and so eager to learn and improve. It was just a deeply fulfilling experience. When I look back on my career and all the different things I’ve done and the impact I’ve had in different domains, certainly being a special ed teacher was one of the most meaningful and impactful aspects of my career.

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