Deval Patrick, former two-term governor of Massachusetts, joined Harvard Kennedy School in early 2022. Patrick, who co-leads the Center for Public Leadership with faculty member Hannah Riley Bowles, also serves as professor of practice of public leadership. Before becoming the commonwealth’s first Black governor in 2007, Patrick served as a staff attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was a partner at two Boston law firms and an executive at two Fortune 50 companies. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton as assistant attorney general for civil rights. In joining HKS, Patrick sees an opportunity to help influence a new generation of public leaders “by committing to some of the unwritten rules of democracy, such as integrity, respect for truth and fact, curiosity about others’ perspectives, humility, and the notion that no one party and no one person has a corner on all the best ideas.”
Q: This is a different direction for you. Why join the Center for Public Leadership?
If you think about the big challenges that face humankind today, from division along racial or religious or partisan lines, to the climate crisis, to waning confidence in democracy itself, each is affected by—and some have their roots in—shortcomings in leadership. We have people in many senior positions who have thought hard about how to become a leader but not how to be a leader.
Better leadership requires a set of grounding principles and values, not just a particular view on this or that policy outcome. To actually spend your political capital to move things forward, not just accumulate it, to do the best for all those you serve—not just those who voted for you—nowadays that takes courage. When I was governor, I liked sitting with and convening folks who may normally not sit or talk with each other, problem solving collaboratively; I think that produces some of the best outcomes. I want the Kennedy School in general, and CPL in particular, to be that kind of platform.
And I worry about the success of American democracy. I worry about its sustainability, and about the ways in which we've been, as a friend of mine describes it, treating it for a long time like it would tolerate limitless abuse without breaking. I believe this has something to do with shortcomings in our own political leadership. I think both parties have some responsibility here. I’m hoping CPL can be a place to examine some of those challenges.
Q: Today, there is a lot of contempt for politicians and mistrust of leadership. How will you help your students work through that?
There is almost always something behind the contempt. I think it has many causes, not the least of which is social media, where bully-like behavior was permissible and tolerated from the start. As we become more distant from each other, in a whole host of ways, we don't have to sit down and look someone in the eye and say what we say about them and their politics. That is a problem.
Public leaders have to learn to listen. It’s hard to be the first one trying to be gracious and listen when someone else has called you everything but a child of God. I've had that experience in public life, and I have tried to remember those rules I was taught by my grandparents growing up: that everybody is entitled to a respectful hearing, that everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity, and that everyone is deserving of at least an effort at understanding. My grandparents were refugees from the Jim Crow South who were not afforded that kind of deference and respect, and yet they taught me those lessons. For them with their experiences to set these expectations of me as a citizen, as a human being, as a creature of God, well, that's a lesson that sticks.
Q: What makes you optimistic about our future?
I am actually very optimistic, and I take my optimism, though it will sound like a cliché, from the young people I meet, here at the Kennedy School and elsewhere. The demonstrations after the George Floyd video was released, for example, were occurring in just about every city and town in America. They were overwhelmingly peaceful. The people present were from every kind of background, many of them young, not all of them, but many young. In many respects, they put their collective foot down and said, "If America is about justice, we need to be about justice right now, not eventually, but right now." I admire that, and I respect and welcome their impatience.
I'm hopeful that their focus is so deep and that their energy is as strident and that their patience is as limited as it is because I think that pushes us all. I am hoping to influence that, not tamp it down or slow it down, but to influence it so it can be as effective as possible and so that it is about all of us, not just some.
Q: You are such a public figure. What is something we may not know about you?
I’m a beekeeper; did you know that? I have four hives and have been tending them for about 10 years now. I do it for a number of reasons. There’s the honey. And the pollenating they do. We have a lot of old fruit trees on our property in Western Massachusetts, and I like understanding what those trees need and how the bees interact with them. And caring for the bees slows you down. It makes you live at a different pace than the one I normally run, so it’s good for me. I hope I’m good for them!