Anthony Foxx joins HKS as the newly appointed Emma Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at HKS. He sees the Bloomberg Center for Cities as a logical home for his passion for smart, equitable cities and his desire to encourage future leaders along that path. As former secretary of transportation in the Obama presidency, Foxx released the world’s first national guidance on integrating driverless vehicles into the transportation system, successfully advocating for long-term transportation funding on a bipartisan basis. As a former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, Foxx also has ideas on leadership. In addition to teaching at HKS, he will chair the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee on Transportation. We spoke with Foxx about his new appointment, his work with smart cities, and his advice for future leaders. Edits have been made to the conversation for clarity and length.
Q: What drew you to teaching and to HKS?
I’m a child of teachers. I grew up in a family of teachers starting with my grandparents. In my experience, it was unusual to have people who raised kids who went into education, but I have an aunt who taught at the college level. So, I’ve just been around education my entire life. And what I know about education is that it has the capacity to scale up, and it has a profound impact on people. I know that because of teachers I’ve had, and I use the word “teacher” deliberately. Professor is a wonderful title that I am privileged to hold, but teaching is a mission.
I think it’s taken me some time to feel like I have enough experience and knowledge to share with other people. But I do feel ready now. It’s exciting to have an opportunity to share it with young people who are fired up about public service and who want to find their way.
Q: As U.S. transportation secretary, you launched the Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities Challenge. What did the DOT learn from this?
The whole Smart Cities effort at U.S. DOT was a process of breaking eggs. Ultimately, we were testing the conventional wisdom that government cannot be innovative. We had to be creative to get the initiative started at all. We did not have any dedicated funding for it. Every year, however, we would turn over unallocated research funding back to Congress. We bundled $40 million of that unallocated money together to launch the program, and our appropriators were not pleased. While not a huge amount of money when compared to the overall federal budget, it was enough to focus a moonshot program on medium-sized cities. From the beginning, we hoped that the effort would spur innovative thinking at the local level and push forward ideas, even among cities that did not make the cut. And it did. While we funded one city, Columbus, Ohio, we fueled innovation in more than 70 cities across America.
I also saw how much federal grant funding could affect private sector behavior. We put equity into the program as a criteria for cities, which meant that their technology partners also had to channel their offerings to underserved communities. Take the program in Columbus, Ohio, as an example. The program could have been one that just helped trucks move faster or untangled congestion in the downtown area. And those are perfectly good things to do. But we got a bonus when we put that in there because what happened is Columbus started thinking about their problems. One of the problems was infant mortality, and their aspiration became connecting pediatrician appointments to bus trips using an app. They planned to have that app created, one that would allow mom to set up a bus trip linked to her appointment. If the bus was late, the appointment would automatically get rescheduled. It was a clever way to blend transportation and health care. Do I think this issue would have surfaced if we had not put equity into the criteria? No.
Q: How will that work inform what you’re going to be doing with the Bloomberg Center?
I have a lot of interests I’m excited about pursuing. I want to build on the work that I’ve done in transportation, thinking through what sorts of transportation assets are needed in communities throughout the world, while keeping an eye on new technologies and ensuring that equity becomes an accepted criteria for transportation decision-making. Can we build new transportation systems with fewer of the bad externalities that were experienced in the 1950s and sixties as the highway system was being put in place here in the United States? Are there connections between transportation decisions that are being made in South America that could be replicated or learnings can be taken from there and imported to some other part of the world?
I'm also very interested in leadership. As I was leaving the Cabinet, I would periodically be invited to go to leadership meetings on the Hill. And I remember Charlie Rangel (former congressman from New York), in a meeting with hundreds of members of Congress, singled me out. He said, "You've had this extraordinary experience, and no one will understand that experience unless you write about it, unless you document it, because there have only been so many people who look like you who have done these jobs before." And I took that very seriously. And over the last couple of years, I’ve on and off worked on a book that looks backward at the history of African Americans in the U.S. Cabinet. I hope I’m able to leave whatever lessons I’ve assembled for future leaders, some of whom will look like me, some of whom won’t. But I also hope it holds a mirror up to the differences that still prove pervasive in our society.
I learned things by watching leaders in all sorts of disciplines. And I think any good leader is always looking for things to learn. A businessperson can learn leadership lessons from a governmental leader and vice-versa. I think leadership is a core skill that shows up everywhere, so I hope my observations within government will resonate with anyone interested in leading.
Q: You were elected mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, at 38—the youngest mayor in the city's history. Did you find that intimidating or invigorating? What advice would you give to our future leaders?
At the point at which I was elected mayor, I felt ready. I had been on the city council for two terms. My training as a lawyer was helpful. I felt ready. But here’s the thing: a lot of other people weren’t ready. I had to deal with the fact that some of the people on the city council who had been there for 10 years already were not so happy. It was not simply a matter of winning an election and making good decisions. The interpersonal dynamics are oftentimes the most important factor in determining a leader’s ability to succeed. I would tell a young leader that an election is a starting point. What’s after that? What are you going to do with it? Who and what is going to be in your way? What is your strategy for dealing with those roadblocks? Good ideas can get pulverized by human contact.
When I think of the students, I want them to understand the utter chaos and complexity that comes with assuming leadership. It isn’t all neat and tidy. I believe you should have an agenda and that agenda should be deeply enmeshed in the campaign. The public should know what you’re going to do. After a successful campaign, one should translate those promises into a list of outcomes, timelines, and real thoughts about who needs to help you accomplish those outcomes. You need to be detailed and crystal clear. Getting things done requires the support of others. And that’s an entirely different skill, especially when you’re dealing with people who believe your success is a loss for them. How do you create win-win scenarios? That’s an entirely necessary skill when you’re the mayor or the governor or the president. When you’re an executive in a role where you are dependent upon a legislative body to help you, they have to see themselves being helped by you. And that’s a delicate challenge. When you're the shiny new young pup with the spotlights on you, and everybody’s smiling, it just makes it even harder.