Joseph Daniels — Founding President of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Joseph (Joe) Daniels, a distinguished leader in the nonprofit sector, has over two decades of experience in CEO roles. Recognized for his skills in capital creation, team building, and cultivating robust stakeholder relationships, he stands as a beacon of effective leadership.
Joseph Daniels’ impactful journey includes being the founding president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Over a decade at the helm, he orchestrated the institution’s development, planning, and ongoing operations. Through his leadership, the organization raised over $500 million and fostered a team of 500 personnel, all while maintaining an operating budget exceeding $80 million. In close partnership with chairman and former mayor of New York City Michael R. Bloomberg and a diverse array of stakeholders, including 9/11 families, Joseph Daniels forged a path of resilience and remembrance.
Transitioning into the role of CEO and president of the National Medal of Honor Museum, Joe Daniels was instrumental in assembling an esteemed board of directors, securing $80 million in funding, and overseeing the design selection process for the museum that will honor American heroism.
Joseph Daniels also served as the CEO of America250, steering the course of celebrations for America’s 250th anniversary. Leading a dynamic team, he conceptualized and executed plans to mark this historic milestone.
Joe Daniels began his nonprofit journey with the Robin Hood Foundation, where he led a meaningful initiative focused on providing libraries in schools serving underprivileged communities. This endeavor exemplified his commitment to social impact and community enrichment.
Joseph Daniels holds a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School and a Bachelor of Arts in history from Washington University in St. Louis.
Joe Daniels and his wife, Naomi, have lived happily in New York City for over a quarter of a century, actively participating in their local community and finding spiritual belonging at the Tamid synagogue. With a legacy of transformative leadership, Daniels remains a steadfast advocate for meaningful change, leaving an indelible mark on the nonprofit landscape.
What is your typical day, and how do you make it productive?
When I’m leading an organization, I usually start my day by writing in the morning. I like to make sure that I have a little time alone in order to gather my thoughts for the day. I also make it a point to take a walk to the office. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to live close to where I’ve worked. I wake up in the morning, like many people in the workforce do, thinking about all of the immediate crises to deal with and everything that has to get done. But I find that taking a walk as I’m going to the office allows me to put the day in a big-picture context and allows a little bit of thinking about tracking toward our long-term strategic goals rather than the short-term tactical wins.
Of course, there are always exceptions when there are real crises to deal with, but when I get to the office, I try to have a light morning ritual of talking to people, asking them about how they are, and doing just a little socializing in the morning. Reinforcing the bonds and connections between the people on the team, ultimately, is what allows us to get the most out of the team in service of the mission. Coming in and being among the team in a casual way to start things off has proven successful for me as a leader.
How do you bring ideas to life?
In general, I’m a creative person. I was a creative writing minor in college. I actually used to write a tremendous amount of poetry. And I’ve always had that artistic, left-brained side of me that is potentially unexpected in a CEO.
I was at McKinsey & Company, and they do Myers-Briggs personality typing. Almost 80% of all of the McKinsey associates are a certain personality type; it’s INTJ, which is very type-A, very right-brained. And I am not that. But when you look at the McKinsey partnership, it flips almost exactly inversely, where the majority of the partners have my personality type, which is ENFP, which is more of the left-brain side of things.
I’m also a huge reader. I’m still on a mission to read the Top 100 books of the 20th century in The Modern Library. I’m 70% of the way there. I love it. Being immersed in other worlds with great literature and being curious has allowed me to just take in tons and tons of content, very little of which is directly related to any one thing I’m doing in particular on the professional side, but I do think it has made me a really curious person. And I’m naturally creative.
When you put those two things together in a professional context, I’m always looking for the next great idea, whether that comes from me or someone else. I’m even more proud when someone on my team, through sort of a Socratic dialogue, we come up with an idea together.
I learned that by going to law school and learning through the Socratic method, asking questions. You just really get to places that you don’t think of. I don’t think I’ve ever just sat down thinking I need to come up with a good idea. It comes very organically through curiosity, through conversation, and through accessing the full span of life that I try to be involved with.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The thing I am most curious about and I do find potentially exciting, but also somewhat scary, is artificial intelligence.
I follow this stuff since I’m super curious about things that interest me, and AI is something I’ve just really latched on to through reading and podcasts from all different angles; from the science perspective, from the cultural perspective. When I finally decided to download the OpenAI app, which is ChatGPT-4, and just played around with it, it absolutely blew my mind. It’s nothing compared to what’s coming, and it’s already mind-blowing. I think about these scenarios that were painted when I was growing up in science fiction. There’s no reason that they’re not going to happen.
From a professional perspective, I’m interested to see how AI can be deployed for good or would potentially be interested in playing a role to make sure that AI is widely used in the right way.
I don’t know what that is, but I do know it’s the biggest thing that our civilization has seen. We’re going down that road, we’ve just taken the first step, and I’m super excited about that.
What is one habit that helps you be productive?
Health is really important to me. I find that feeling fit and healthy through exercise and nutrition is really important to me. Meditation is something that I started about a decade ago. I’d say I was sort of a frequent dabbler but then started taking it more seriously, and now it’s something that is just incredibly essential to my well-being.
Meditating helps free up space in my mind, uncluttered space, to be able to engage with challenges that are not necessarily the ones that are right in front of me, but helps me be able to anticipate and see around corners.
I mean, it’s a revolutionary idea, the idea that we are separated from our thoughts, that we are not our thoughts — it’s an amazing insight. And through the practice of meditation, it’s incredible to see that play out practically. I am at my most productive when I’m paying attention to my meditation habits.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Some advice I’d give to my younger self is to not be afraid to let people down, and it’s OK to admit that you need help, and you don’t have to constantly feel like you have to prove yourself.
The reason I hesitate to give that advice to my younger self is because I do know that because of that trait, it’s brought me to where I am. The concept of “not letting people down” really hit me in my junior or senior year of college, where, all of a sudden, I was like, “I need to start doing really well.”
My success up to that point was just happenstance. I tested really well. I did really well in the classes that I liked, and I didn’t do well in the classes that I didn’t. But starting at that time, I got this feeling that I needed to prove myself all the time, and that led to the University of Pennsylvania, led to Cravath [Swaine & Moore LLP], led to working at … well, my whole career.
But it’s been a bumpy ride psychologically to be in that state. And that connects with meditation. Being able to separate out who you are versus what you do or what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling is incredibly valuable because it does allow you to still perform really, really well but not take on the personal punishment of feeling that you have to all the time.
What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else do?
One thing that I’ve done throughout my career is to learn from other people in the organization that I don’t necessarily need to learn from in order to do my job. When I was CEO at the Sept. 11 memorial, I spent a lot of time during the design and construction phase being around and interacting with and having meetings with our architects and our construction engineers.
And they were always really happy because that’s not what they had experienced in other major jobs like this, that the CEO would come down to their side. But it’s incredibly gratifying to know these things. And I’ve been able to use that knowledge at other places in my career.
I was in law school. I didn’t have a finance background. I went to McKinsey and learned some stuff there in my specific roles. But I always made it a point to meet people, whether as colleagues or then when I was the CEO, as part of my team. I would actively spend time with those who had subject-matter expertise, even though it had no necessary relevance to my scope of work.
And it’s been a huge plus for me professionally, certainly, and personally, too. You become more well rounded. It all relates to this idea of being curious. And this is one major manifestation I think everyone should do.
What is one failure in your career, how did you overcome it, and what lessons did you take away from it?
The word that I’m having a problem with, and maybe this is instructive, is the word “failure.” Because there have certainly been things that didn’t meet my standards and other people’s standards. But ultimately, I looked at those episodes as learning opportunities.
During my time with the Sept. 11 memorial, there were many, many things that I would say were failures or mistakes along the way, but all of those together helped lead us to where we needed to go.
Another part of my career that comes to mind is my brief tenure at America250; America250 was the first job that I had as a CEO where I inherited a staff that had been around for multiple years. At both the Sept. 11 memorial and the Medal of Honor Museum, I was essentially within the first few employees and built out the organization to reflect my commitment, and my mission, and my values. This draws on my belief of connecting with my teams on a personal level, spending time, and learning from others as a core part of our culture.
But when I entered America250, this organization already had a relatively long history and a predisposed culture. And then I walked in, and I didn’t think it was fair to make rapid changes without really understanding the organization and the people. Then mixing in the combination of the pandemic, where the office was closed, and the fact that I was in New York and the rest of the staff was in D.C., I didn’t get what I would usually get, which is an ability to rapidly assess the staff and the environment, the board, and all of that.
So I was isolated from that ability to assess. And in retrospect, I should have arrived at decisions to effectuate change more quickly and said, “This organization has been around for two and a half years. It hasn’t succeeded. Here’s why.”
Building relationships with your board is an incredibly important part of the CEO’s job and the organization’s ultimate success. It’s what I’ve done at the Sept. 11 memorial and the Medal of Honor Museum, and they were both hugely successful. I missed that opportunity for America250. And I highly recommend to any CEO that building an authentic relationship, not being a yes-person for the board, but building an authentic relationship with the individual board members, is to the organization’s benefit.
To boil it into a lesson: When conditions aren’t ideal, you have to be flexible with how you approach things.
Do you have a favorite book or podcast you’ve gotten a ton of value from and why?
The “Making Sense With Sam Harris” podcast and his meditation app, Waking Up. It has been transformational since I discovered it, which was probably a year ago or so. What makes it so transformational is that it’s unlike the two major meditation apps, which I’d used for years prior to being introduced to Waking Up.
It’s very well known that meditation has actual neuroscientific benefits. What Waking Up has done is create one place where you get the science of meditation and, bigger picture, the science of consciousness. And it is absolutely just mind-blowing the stuff that neuroscience knows and has continued to discover. And Sam Harris, because he’s credible as a neuroscientist himself, his biggest value is that he has the credibility and the reach to bring in the best of the best in all of these different neuroscience fields and neuroscience-related fields.
Having meditation and then, in equal measure, having a deep scientific exploration of consciousness is absolutely astonishing. I just could not recommend it more.
What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?
I just finished Season 1 of Foundation, which is this Apple TV show that’s based on Isaac Asimov’s book Foundation. And it was amazing. I haven’t started Season 2 yet, but it just came out. It’s like Dune, kind of, really hardcore. They call it space opera, when its stories stretch off across the expanse of the universe in a Game of Thrones, soap opera sort of way.