Having escaped to the United States from her childhood home of Cold War West Germany with only a suitcase in tow, Bonner experienced firsthand what can happen when leadership falls in the wrong hands, sparking the question: What factors differentiate the good leaders from the bad?
“Leadership often has little to do with formal authority,” she said. “There is no one way to be a leader, and you don’t even have to gather contemporaneous followers in order to become one…. Yet the common thread running through all concepts and permutations of leadership models is power.”
Bonner, who currently serves as Senior Legal Advisor, Chief Compliance Officer, and ESG Chair at a $6-billion New York hedge fund, has held numerous prominent positions throughout her career at hedge funds, private equity/venture capital funds, and in government. This has included serving as Joe Biden’s press secretary during his time as senator, Assistant General Counsel at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Deputy Director of a Pentagon task force, and an intern to a senior official in the Clinton White House. She’s also done pro bono work for the Biden 2020 presidential campaign and is a former award-winning columnist who covered business, politics, and media.
Her professional experience has profoundly shaped her perception of leadership and shifted her focus from maximizing her contributions to understanding that there is a time to lead and a time to step back. Bonner’s desire to be a good leader has evolved to include mentoring.
“Yale Law School famously says that it trains its graduates for their last job, not merely their first job. That is the approach I now take with the people I manage,” she said. “I look for good raw material in future leaders, and then I train and invest in them in order to get those quality people into their future leadership positions. I spend more time on developing these human pieces than on the completion of mere tasks. That is what YLS did with me — and what it is doing for current students.”
Now decades into her career, Bonner said leadership has come to her in many different forms and usually in ways that she never expected.
“Often, the most challenging and consequential leadership roles are the ones that find you,” said Bonner.
“For me, these have included taking a very challenging public role, complete with significant potential reputational risks attached; becoming a whistleblower, saving lives although losing a position at the height of the Great Recession; helping someone get listed for a kidney transplant, then donating my kidney to them; advocating for public policy change on behalf of New York City foster children; and leaving behind nearly all relationships and material possessions (beyond what fit in a single suitcase), leaving behind one life to begin a new one in the States. Right now, I’m putting my YLS Immigration Clinic skills to good use while mobilizing a group of friends and family to resettle warfront Ukrainians to humanitarian refuge in the United States. None of these projects are on my resume, but they are my proudest career moments.”
Bonner said that, in these times of uncertainty, holding true to her values and understanding the resources she has at her disposal are what carry her through.
“Be ready to lead for its own sake — for the good that you contribute to our world. In the end, you’ll find that these become the most important and most defining acts of your life.”
Bonner holds a J.D. from Yale Law School, an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, and a B.A. from Syracuse University where she studied international relations, French literature, economics, and political science. In her spare time, she enjoys jiu-jitsu, wildlife photography, and board service and is a certified mindfulness meditation instructor. In addition to English, she can speak German, French, and Portuguese.