fbpx Teaching mayors to lead through COVID-19 | Harvard Kennedy School

As COVID-19 began spreading from city to city, Jorrit de Jong and Rawi Abdelal, faculty co-chairs of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a collaboration between Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, resolved to help mayors address the complex public health, social, racial, and economic challenges exacerbated by the global pandemic. Since launching the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in 2016, they have worked closely with nearly a thousand mayors and other senior city leaders worldwide to equip them with problem-solving, innovation, and other leadership and management tools to address the most difficult issues in their cities.

This year, De Jong, who is also a senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, and Abdelal, the Herbert F. Johnson Professor of International Management at Harvard Business School, reshaped the initiative’s immersive program for mayors, which kicked off virtually on July 9, to focus on leading social and economic recovery from COVID-19, with an emphasis on equity.

“COVID-19 has deepened the systemic racial, social, and economic inequalities in our cities,” said Jorrit de Jong. “Our new class of mayors will focus on the leadership, management, policy, and civic engagement required to rebuild their cities in a more equitable and sustainable way. The curriculum includes sessions on change management, participatory governance, equitable economic development, fiscal resilience, and racial justice.”

“Our new class of mayors will focus on the leadership, management, policy, and civic engagement required to rebuild their cities in a more equitable and sustainable way.”

Jorrit de Jong

The fourth cohort is made up of mayors representing the broad geographic and demographic spectrum of U.S. cities. Almost half of this year’s class are women; one third are African American or Hispanic; and 40 percent are in their first year of office.

“Though we represent vastly different cities, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated many long-standing and systemic issues around community health, race, employment, and education in all of our communities and created many shared but unprecedented challenges,” said Shawyn Patterson-Howard, the first woman elected mayor of Mount Vernon, New York, and a member of the fourth class of mayors. “Vision, creativity, and operational agility are essential to meeting these challenges head on, and I’m looking forward to learning from my peers—and offering my own new, uncustomary and asymmetrical ideas that can help us rebuild our cities more equitably.”

The first session featured an interactive discussion on leading diverse teams in a multi-layered crisis, led by Kimberlyn Leary, a lecturer in policy at the Kennedy School. The topic resonated with many of the mayors.

“Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, my administration has been committed to using data and science to inform our decisions and utilize best practices from experts throughout the country,” said Steven Reed, Montgomery Alabama’s first Black mayor. “We launched MGM Ready to ensure access to up-to-date information and resources for our community—especially our most vulnerable and at-risk populations. Additionally, we have collaborated with medical providers and private-sector partners to expand testing and safety measures. And I have not shied away from using my executive powers when necessary to protect public health. In the midst of containing the spread of the virus, and mitigating the social and economic impacts, we are also spearheading community-wide efforts to address racial and economic inequality,” said Reed. “The topics covered in this year’s program are not only relevant but crucial to the work – and the challenges – taking place on the ground in cities.”

Collage of video conference calls from program participants.

Beginning in early March, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has convened virtual weekly sessions to provide mayors with up-to-date public health information, science-based guidance, and crisis leadership training from top experts. The initiative’s COVID-19 Local Response program, an 11-week series, started with a course on crisis leadership essentials taught by the Kennedy School’s Juliette Kayyem, the Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security, and Dutch Leonard, the George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Public Management. Other sessions featured Leary on stress and mental health, and Linda Bilmes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, on building financial resilience.

The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is concurrently running two additional programs open to mayors worldwide to help them navigate their cities’ COVID-19 response and recovery. The Leading Social and Economic Recovery program was launched in June. This program provides up-to-date public health information on the pandemic as well as crisis leadership training. Another program that was recently launched is Leading Through Crisis: Reducing the Impact of COVID-19 in Latin America and Africa. This series is specifically designed for mayors in Latin America and Africa who are coping with the devastating health, social, and economic impacts of this public health crisis in the context of severe resource constraints, a weak health infrastructure, and high population density.

“Through our COVID-19 Response and Recovery programs, we’ve been able to provide crucial support, crisis leadership tools, and public health guidance to more than 1,000 city officials in over 300 cities worldwide,” said Abdelal. “As long as the pandemic continues, we’ll put our efforts into providing programming and training that helps them navigate uncertainty, protect the health of their citizens, and rebuild their cities more equitably.”

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