Deval Patrick, the new co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at HKS, wants to train a new generation of principled leaders to take on the big problems they’ve inherited from their predecessors.
Featuring Deval Patrick
September 2, 2022
33 minutes and 31 seconds
Are bad leaders flawed because of their personal shortcomings or are they an inevitable product of the flawed systems they operate within? And what makes a good leader? Is it their ability to get people to follow them? Or is it choosing the right things to lead those people toward? Deval Patrick recently became co-director with Hannah Riley Bowles of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, or CPL, as it’s usually referred to here in Cambridge. Transcending his humble beginnings growing up as the son of a single mother on the South Side of Chicago, Patrick has built an impressive—and impressively varied—leadership resume, including serving as governor of Massachusetts, becoming the first Black man to do so. He also served as the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights under President Bill Clinton, as a top corporate executive at Texaco and Coca-Cola, and even launched a brief bid for the White House in 2020. Patrick says that too many of today’s leaders are focused on getting into leadership positions and keeping them—with all the power and perks that entails—but have lost track of the greater meaning of what they can achieve for the common good. In fact, Patrick ascribes bad leadership as a root cause of many of the huge problems facing human society and the world, including the climate crisis, and threats to democracy and human rights. He joins us to talk about how good, values-based leadership can help turn things around—and the role he hopes CPL can play in that effort.
Deval Patrick is a professor of practice of public leadership and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Originally from the South Side of Chicago, Patrick attended Milton Academy, thanks to the organization A Better Chance, and then Harvard College and Harvard Law School. After law school, he clerked for a federal appellate judge and then launched a career as an attorney and business executive, becoming a staff attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, assistant attorney general for civil tights in the Clinton administration, a partner at two Boston law firms and a senior executive at two Fortune 500 companies.
In 2006, in his first bid for elective office, he became Massachusetts’ 71st governor, the first Black person to serve in the role.
Patrick is a Rockefeller Fellow, a Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, and the author of two books, A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life and Faith in the Dream: A Call to the Nation to Reclaim American Values.
Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Public Affairs and Communications is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an A.B. in Political Science from UCLA and an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University.
The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.
Deval Patrick (Intro): We are focused on both the principle part and the effective part. The principle part, I think, has a lot to do for all of us and for me ... and we use different words ... but with a values-based, conviction-oriented kind of leadership, in my own sense very much tempered by humility. Because I think it is important to have a strong sense of your own true north, but it's also important to understand that no one person, no one party, has a corner on all the best ideas.
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast. I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli. Are bad leaders flawed because of their personal shortcomings or are they an inevitable product of the flawed systems they operate within? And what makes a good leader? Is it their ability to get people to follow them? Or is it choosing the right things to lead those people toward? Deval Patrick was recently named co-director with Hannah Riley Bowles of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, or CPL, as it’s usually referred to here in Cambridge. Transcending his humble beginnings growing up as the son of a single mother on the South Side of Chicago, Patrick has built an impressive—and impressively varied—leadership resume, including serving as governor of Massachusetts, becoming the first Black man to do so. He also served as the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights under President Bill Clinton, as a top corporate executive at Texaco and Coca-Cola, and even launched a brief bid for the White House in 2020. Patrick says that too many of today’s leaders are focused on getting into leadership positions and keeping them—with all the power and perks that entails—but have lost track of the greater meaning of what they can achieve for the common good. In fact, Patrick ascribes bad leadership as a root cause of many of the huge problems facing human society and the world, including the climate crisis, and threats to democracy and human rights. He’s here today to talk about how good, values-based leadership can help turn things around—and the role he hopes CPL can play in that effort.
Ralph Ranalli: Deval, welcome to PolicyCast.
Deval Patrick: Thank you. Thank you, Ralph. Good to see you again.
Ralph Ranalli: Thanks. Well, you're certainly no stranger to leadership. You've been a governor. You've been an assistant U.S. attorney general. You've been an executive at a couple of Fortune 500 companies. You've been a leader in different contexts. And you've had other leadership posts. I was hoping we could just start by talking a bit about what your definition of what good public leadership is, and how that was informed by your life experience and your work experience.
Deval Patrick: It's a timely question, Ralph, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that we've been engaged at CPL ... at the Center for Public Leadership, where I am a co-director alongside the extraordinary Hannah Riley Bowles ... in an exercise with our fellow faculty members, with staff, to some extent with students, and with alumni, on really refreshing our definition of what principled, effective leadership in the public sector is, mainly because I think we need to have a sense of shared outcomes so that we can organize the programs around that. Some of this has to do also with my sense that a lot of the big challenges facing humankind are affected by and in some cases derived from shortcomings in public leadership.
We are focused on both the principle part and the effective part. The principle part, I think, has a lot to do for all of us and for me ... and we use different words ... but with a values-based, conviction-oriented kind of leadership, in my own sense very much tempered by humility. Because I think it is important to have a strong sense of your own true north, but it's also important to understand that no one person, no one party, has a corner on all the best ideas. And so you should be listening hard for better ways to accomplish your objectives, to get a better understanding of what those objectives ought to be, and how they differ from what you thought they ought to be if you're listening closely to the people you serve.
We also want people on the effective side to be focused on outcomes, not just outputs. By that I mean ... you'll know this, Ralph ... an awful lot of government programs are evaluated on their success or their evolution by how much bigger this or that line item is, rather than is it, that program or what have you, that initiative, actually accomplishing what it was set out to accomplish, and is there a different or better way to think about meaningful, lasting change that delivers those worthy objectives. A lot of good work has gone on and I'm excited about where we're going. I really, really am, and I think that as we organize the educational, the pedagogical, the experiential learning, as well as the exposure ... meaning the leaders we bring in from practice to engage with students and with us on the faculty ... these are the important guideposts for us to have.
Ralph Ranalli: One of the reasons I really wanted to bring you in was because you said that many of humankind's greatest challenges today have their roots in shortcomings in leadership. I want to talk about that in a minute, but I do want to go back to your personal experience and this notion of principled leadership, the quality of leading people married with a dedication to principle, an underlying dedication to principle and values, how was that informed over the years. And did it evolve for you as you went along in your career in these varied leadership experiences that you had yourself?
Deval Patrick: I think there are a couple things that come to mind in response to the question. The first is I have had a lot of experience working with other leaders, working for other leaders, and I've learned a ton. I have also observed in some that there was a lot more thought given to how to get the big leadership job than to how to do the big leadership job, and there's a difference. I'm not just talking about in a political context, the difference between a campaign and actual service. And it's not just that, but it's having in mind why you want the leadership job and how do you actualize that, to use a current term. I'm very interested in encouraging students and encouraging faculty and practitioners to engage the why question, not just how.
I also think that recognizing that you have, in an elective position, a defined term, in an appointed position, often a defined term, but in practical life, and frankly, even in the private sector, you don't have that much time. If you want an ambitious agenda, as I have in every job I've had, even the ones that weren't leadership jobs, you've really got to be busy, you can't be so focused on how to keep it. Although I'm not unrealistic—you've got to strike that balance too. But there's an urgency that I've observed, that I think is important when you have a couple years. Four years is not long in a term, and eight years, on any given day it feels long, but there's an awful lot of unmet need. If you are about trying to leave things better for those who come behind, which I think is extraordinarily important for leaders to bring as one of the values to the job, then having a really good, clear sense of why has been important to me. It's something I have learned from working with and around various leaders in various settings over the years.
Ralph Ranalli: Do you have, for lack of a better term, a leadership hero, someone who, in the back of your mind as you go through and think about leadership, embodies if not everything, at least some of the important attributes of leadership?
Deval Patrick: Maybe not everything, but a couple. I think that some of my examples, I think, are probably subject to criticism. I think Winston Churchill was an extraordinary leader, for the moment he had in leadership during the Second World War. He was flawed. We all are. Some flaws are deeper than others, and his were pretty deep in some respects, but one of the things that I'm so struck by in Churchill was his willingness and his appetite for innovation. The trying things and giving cover when things didn't work, not throwing the innovator on his staff under the bus, but just taking responsibility and giving cover. I think it's a really important dimension to leadership, because I think we're all hungry for innovation in the public sector, just as we are in the private sector. Frankly, successful innovation requires you raise your tolerance for failure. Politics punishes failure, so I think we get less innovation in public policy than we'd like.
I think Lincoln was an extraordinary, principled and effective leader. He was cagey and tactical when he needed to be, but he left a legacy that was about long-term value. He was, I think, like Churchill—extraordinarily good at articulating what that meant. But some of the very best leaders I have met and encountered are not historical figures. They are people who work at the grassroots. They are people who build relationships across differences. They are improbable leaders, if you will, because alongside conviction, there's that humility. There's something about it. It's corny to say, but there's something about leading with an open heart, that you can learn to listen the way Louis Pasteur, I think, described it, without losing your temper or your self-confidence. And that as you listen, you are enriching your understanding of leadership and you're actually building allies as well.
Ralph Ranalli: I did want to get back to your statement that many of humankind's greatest challenges today have their roots in shortcomings in leadership. Now, leadership's not necessarily the first thing that jumps to my mind when I think about the underlying drivers of the climate crisis or ...
Deval Patrick: I don't know why you don't.
Ralph Ranalli: ... rampant inequality.
Deval Patrick: I don't know why you don't. Of course they relate to shortcomings in leadership, and short-termism in leadership.
Ralph Ranalli: Tell me how leadership is at the core of that.
Deval Patrick: Well, I'll give you an example. I worked at Texaco. I was one of the five top executives at Texaco; I was general counsel there for a couple years before the company merged out of existence, really, with another oil and gas company, during that period when there was an awful lot of consolidation. Texaco at the time, I think, was the number two oil and gas company. When all the stuff was happening around consolidation, the number one jumped over the number two and merged into Exxon and Mobil, and Texaco was, for a variety of reasons, in search of a merger partner. One of the things that I came to learn was about this coalition of oil and gas companies that had been contributing to an entity ... I can't even remember the name of it ... that was in fact funding the so-called science effectively denying climate change.
Ralph Ranalli: Climate pseudoscience.
Deval Patrick: Right. I learned about this, and it was time to come up with that year's dues or whatever it was. I spoke with the CEO, and I said, "Why are we doing this?" Now, this is well before the consensus in the science was in favor of today's view, which is that there is a link between human behavior and changes in the climate. But it was growing, and it was ... at least the science, if you will, or pseudoscience on the other side, was at least questionable. I mean, it was clearly advantageous to the industry, because it didn't require you to do anything differently. We had a CEO who at the time was really interested ... and this is why I mention the context of mergers ... in merging with a different company ... I won't get into names ... because he was really interested in alternative energy and how we could turn from being an oil and gas company to an energy company. This renewal came up, and I said, "Why are we doing this? We ought to pull out of that, because it's not consistent with how you are thinking about the future." After some conversation, he agreed, and we were the first major oil and gas company to pull out of that coalition. Now, nobody knows that, because 15 minutes later we merged with Chevron and the rest of that is history, but there were lots of conversations like that happening in large or major oil and gas companies around the world at that time. This is almost 20 years ago now, but there were decisions made about the short-term importance of staying in coalition like that and continuing to do what we'd always done that has, of course, contributed to the fact that we are in scramble mode now. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?
Ralph Ranalli: Absolutely.
Deval Patrick: How do you make a decision that is consistent with the responsibilities of leadership, which I believe, in the private sector as well as in the public sector, has to take into account, yes, next quarter, the next election. I get it. The next news cycle, I get it. But also the next generation. There's a kind of courage I think it requires. You've got to be willing not just to accumulate your political capital by going along and doing what's popular or not, but you have to spend political capital if you actually want to get something meaningful done.
Ralph Ranalli: I'm glad you brought that up in the corporate context, that kind of decision making, because to me, the corporate context is one of the best places to talk about the interplay between what's systemic about bad leadership and what is individual. If the systemic incentives to be a principled leader or to not be a principled leader are lined up behind being not a principled leader, how much chance do we really have of having principled leaders who are going to go against the incentives that are native to whatever context they're in? I guess that's the question.
Deval Patrick: Well, I think maybe, Ralph, where you and I may differ is that I'm not entirely prepared to accept that the system makes us do what we do. I'm not sure that's leadership, meaning this ... again, to the difference between how you get the big job and how you do it, why you want the big job ...
Ralph Ranalli: And how you keep it.
Deval Patrick: Yeah, and how to keep it. Blame this on my naivete in the political context, but I remember when I was running the first time. When I ran the first time for governor, I hadn't run for any public office before. When I was trying to build a team and I talked to the extraordinary John Walsh, who was my campaign manager, I said, "John, I want to focus on the why, not the how. I've been to any number of political fundraisers and friend-raisers where the candidate starts talking about how they're going to do it, how much money they're going to raise and how to put the coalition together, and how they're going to go find the votes here and there and what have you. I think as a citizen, you want to know why. Why do you want the job? What do you want to do with the job?" I said, "You focus on the how, I will focus on the why." It was, for me, a marriage made in heaven, because the how, frankly, wasn't even a language I wanted to master, let alone had already mastered.
I think this is also true in the corporate sense, which is to say that some ambitious executives—this is a hard thing to say to an ambitious executive who's climbing the ladder and so forth—need climb but be willing to fall. Meaning, in the political context, you run willing to lose. Stand for something. Be about something, so that you're not having to pretend to be something else until you get the job and then you can pivot and turn into whomever you are. I think that any leader who is not really examining, not once and for all but on an ongoing basis, that why, what is his or her north star, why is it important for him or her, why is it important to him or her to have that big job in the first place.
Let me just say one more thing. I know I'm going on. I gave a talk last week in Connecticut, and there was a marvelous Q&A afterwards. My talk was about some of the challenges facing democracy today. It was a friendly crowd, and one of the questioners said, "You sound very idealistic. Let's get pragmatic." I just want to say, I am so tired of people acting like idealism has no place. Idealism invented the best of this country. It is still the thing that, when we are reaching for it, defines our strength, and when we are failing to reach for it, is a thing that sets so many of us off. I'm not at the end of my career, but I've had a lot of fun in a lot of different settings, leading and being a good follower as well, and I haven't had to leave my idealism or my conscience at the door for any of those. I remember people used to say of candidate Obama that hope was not a strategy. Guess what? Neither is cynicism, and we've been confusing cynicism for sophistication for a long time. The ways in which we do that in the public and the private sector contribute to this point I'm making, about how shortcomings in leadership help explain why we are stuck on so many of the big challenges we face.
Ralph Ranalli: You seem to be anticipating all my questions.
Deval Patrick: I'm sorry.
Ralph Ranalli: No, no, no. I'm glad you are, because I've never really understood personally why someone would choose cynicism over idealism. I mean, why would you make that choice? Because it seems to me that idealism is the wellspring of where that values conversation comes from. It's the cynicism where the nuts and bolts that forgets the why you're doing what you're doing conversation comes from. It just seems that we're not having that values conversation, which you should have before the leadership conversation.
Deval Patrick: Well, I agree with that. I think what's so encouraging to me about the moment we live in right now and frankly, the place where I work right now, is that there's a generation that is deeply engaged in these values conversations. Now, the big challenge, I think, is not whether one is or is not woke, if that's the right term, but it's the way Anand Giridharadas describes it. He said, "It's one thing to be woke. It's great that so many people are woke. The question today is will we leave room for the still waking." So you understand leadership as not just being the leader of your own group, of your own like-minded folks,
It's like it grated me at the time and it still grates me when I am described as the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, because I have a very old-fashioned sense of this. You're running as a Democrat. On election day, if you win, you're everybody's governor, the people who agree with you and the people who don't, the people who haven't thought about it before and the people who will run through a wall for you, and all the people in between. It doesn't mean that you need to dilute your convictions, but it does mean you have to take the time to explain it in ways that everybody can understand, so it's not just an impulsive disagreement. This brings me back to the corporate point too, because sometimes in corporate life, just like in political life, you get all these false choices. You know: We will crash the economy if we want a livable planet. It's actually not true, but it is how we have set up the question. It's one of the things that just blows my mind. You'd be surprised. I think it surprises a lot of Progressives how many allies we have in business, and yet another one of these false choices set up is that you can't be a so-called social justice warrior without hating the private sector or private enterprise.
Ralph Ranalli: I wanted to go back to your point about young people, because you said you'd like to foster leaders who commit to the unwritten rules of democracy, integrity, respect for truth and fact, humility to admit that no one person or group has all the answers, and curiosity about other people's perspectives. Is good public leadership necessarily always small-D democratic? Because we've seen, there are a lot of people these days in the world turning to autocrats and away from democrats, small-D democrats. Is good public leadership necessarily always small-D democratic, and if so, why?
Deval Patrick: Well, I think small-D democratic for me means participatory decision making, collaborative decision making. Not that you have a popular referendum on every question, but that there is actual representation, that representation is actually chosen by the people represented. That the folks who are favored in elections are servant leaders, meaning not that they surrender, again, their own conscience and their own conviction, but that they understand they have to go and pay attention to the people who don't agree with them. They're not just the representatives of the people who voted for them.
I think we've been fooling with that model for a long time. It's not just with all the attention given in the last little while with the 19 states and counting, for example, that are suppressing the vote. It's the hyper partisan gerrymandering, it's the amount of money, much of it dark, that is permitted to influence our politics and our policymaking. It's the wholesale purging. There is so much that is designed to engineer electoral outcomes. You have all that in terms of the functioning of democracy, but the other part of it and the part that's just been on my mind and heart for a long time is the meaning of democracy. Does it matter? I think the big question we don't engage ... but this is a project that I'm hoping we take on at the Center ... is how to restore meaning, not just by making the rules the right rules, but how do we make it so that people are getting the outcomes from their democracy that the engagement in their democracy deserves? I think we have a lot of work to do there.
One of the things I'm interested in, for example, is just superficially, you've got a third, I think it is, of eligible voters who don't participate at all, and not all of them because it's harder than it ought to be to register and to vote, but because they're asking themselves whether it matters. There are people who are registered, who talk all day about politics, but who don't get around to voting on that day because they're too busy on that day, and they think, "Well, it doesn't matter." People in Massachusetts who say, when it comes to presidential elections, "My vote here doesn't matter, because Massachusetts is going to go blue, and so we can already count that," and there are candidates who say, "I can count that vote. I don't have to go ask for it, because we can presume." All of that contributes, I think, to a lack of confidence in democracy as a path to a better life. That is work I think we have to do and work we have to understand. I think the Center for Public Leadership is a perfect platform for that, and we are looking to develop that work and develop partners in that work over the next little while. I think that's a real contribution we can make.
Ralph Ranalli: What are you seeing in those young leaders-to-be in that next generation? Are you seeing a difference in attitude, in outlook, maybe a little bit more of the idealism you're hoping for in that next group that's coming up?
Deval Patrick: Well, you're asking a question that invites me to paint with a very broad brush. I'm going to do it anyway, but with that ...
Ralph Ranalli: Well, just based on the conversations you've had.
Deval Patrick: ... with that qualification, and by this, I would say beyond students at the Kennedy School, but the students at the Kennedy School are dazzling. Oh, my gosh. They have life experience already, even the ones who are relatively early in their careers. You add to them folks who have had a little life experience, folks who were mid-careers or senior executives who were coming in for a tune-up or to reexamine their own leadership choices and path. It is a very, very rich environment. I'm looking forward to getting more intimately familiar, so that the generalizations I'm about to make, I can actually make with greater confidence. I think that the things I love are that there's a very deep sense of conviction among many of them. A lot of folks have thought really hard about why they're at the Kennedy School, and that's a step. They're on their way to something, and it's not all the same thing. Some in the public sector, some in the private sector, some in the not-for-profit sector, for example. We want to make sure that they are thinking harder and more intentionally about what it is they want to get out of the Kennedy School and CPL in particular, so that they are not viewing a very demanding year or two as just a stamp of approval, a credential, if you will, on their way to the next thing. That sounds like an obvious thing. But it's a lot bigger challenge for us than you might imagine.
I think what I'm seeing is a very strong sense of conviction and a real urgency about building a more equitable society quickly, and I love that. I love the urgency, but I worry about the patience. This is back to bringing along the folks who aren't already with you, and letting the folks who aren't already with you ... or the folks who are, for that matter ... refine and improve how you think about the long-term goal and execute on the long-term goal. I love the sense of conviction and how strong it is. I worry that the sense of conviction crowds out the humility that somebody else might have a better idea. And by the somebody else, I don't mean just another highly-credentialed, fancy expert. I'm talking about my grandmother, who was a refugee from the Jim Crow South and had a third-grade education. Her life experience and her friends and her neighbors and her family's life experience, what does that tell us about what our agenda ought to be and how we think about ... do you understand what I'm saying? The things that excite me about the young leaders I'm seeing are also things that are sort of watch-outs, and I think my big challenge and our big challenge is to support and encourage the sense of deep conviction, particularly around fairness and the urgency, without being the ones who throw a wet blanket on any of that, and say, "There's actually a way to do this that means that the change we make lasts."
Ralph Ranalli: What's your hope for what you can achieve at CPL during your time here?
Deval Patrick: Well, I'd like for us to be the destination for thought, for convening, for reflection, among would-be leaders and leaders in practice. I'd like us to be a safe place for collaborative problem-solving, in a time where collaboration is harder to do and where so many people are walking on eggshells around lots of hard issues. They're hard for a reason, but because we're human ... maybe I'll speak for myself. I'm going to make mistakes. I'm going to use the wrong word. I'm going to roll my eyes when I shouldn't. There's going to be something that I'll do wrong that creates its own distraction from the point of what it is we're trying to do. It's one thing if we do it at CPL, or if I do it at CPL at the Kennedy School. That's bad enough or hard enough, but it's happening where where people are trying to solve big problems. I want to see if we can create a space where folks in practice trying to solve those problems can retreat a little bit and be safe, and engage in an honest and authentic way and keep their eye on the prize of solving the big problem, whatever it may be.
That is a bigger lift nowadays maybe than it ought to be, but I will say this. One of the things I miss about being governor was something I didn't know was a power of the governor, because it's not written down anywhere, and it's the convening power. You could get people, all kinds of people, to accept an invitation to come and sit at the conference table, frequently alongside people they would never talk to, they would never talk to, and to problem-solve together. It was unique. I mean, it's how we got everything from the Achievement Gap Act, which is the next big ed reform, to the Life Sciences Initiative. All kinds of people around the table. Every single one of them knew more about the subject than I did, but you can convene in a way that everybody gets their say, everybody gets their contribution, and in time, where folks start to make room in their own agenda for the others' point of view and approach. I think that's how you get change that lasts. I'm hoping that, over time at CPL, we can be that same platform for collaboration and collaborative problem-solving for students, for would-be leaders, for the not-yet-famous as well as the famous.
Ralph Ranalli: Well, I know I speak for a lot of people when I say we wish you the best of luck achieving those objectives. Thank you very much for this conversation. It's been interesting and really enjoyable.
Deval Patrick: Thank you, Ralph. I appreciate you having me.
Ralph Ranalli (Outro): Thanks for listening. Please join us for next episode of PolicyCast, and until then, remember to speak bravely, and listen generously.