Remarks delivered before the Harvard Club of Monterrey, Mexico
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
March 1, 2018

Good evening. Thank you for your warm welcome. My colleagues Geoffrey and Amy, and my wife Karen and I, are so pleased to be here in Monterrey, and to have the chance to spend this evening with you. We are very grateful to Antonio Barcelo and the leadership team of the Harvard Club of Monterrey for inviting us to this wonderful event.

I have been dean of Harvard Kennedy School for about two years now. Karen and I met at Harvard in graduate school, and then we both spent many years working in the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. We have loved being back at Harvard—joining the amazing faculty, collaborating with the dedicated staff, getting to know the extraordinary students, and meeting so many incredible alumni. You and your fellow alumni are engaged in so many interesting and important activities, and as I have traveled and met with alumni, I have been very impressed by your commitment to using your talents and energy to make a positive difference in the world. You make all of us who are at Harvard today very proud. Thank you.

Karen and I are especially excited to be spending this week in Mexico—first in Mexico City and now in Monterrey. We are excited because we know that Mexico is one of the United States’s closest allies, partners, and friends. Although there are currently some bumps in the road of our relationship, they are only bumps; the long-term path of this road is clear, and that is Mexico and the United States working together to help all of our people lead better lives. So, we are here to help strengthen the ties between the people of the United States and the people of Mexico.

We are also excited to be here because Mexico is such an amazing country. Just in this short visit, we have marveled at the beautiful mountains, long cultural history, incredible food, and warm people. We are already looking forward to our next visit!

And we are excited to be here because Harvard has had such a long and productive relationship with Mexico. Close to 1400 Harvard alumni live in Mexico, of which almost 250 are graduates of the Kennedy School’s degree programs. Hundreds more Mexicans have participated in executive education programs at Harvard. Quite a few current students at Harvard come from Mexico, and they are deeply engaged with the policy issues that affect this country. Earlier this month, the Harvard University Mexican Association of Students and the Kennedy School Mexican Caucus led a conference on some of the issues they consider most pressing in Mexico, including security, trade, and economic development. Moreover, a number of faculty members at Harvard are working now on projects involving Mexico. For example, at the Kennedy School, Professor Ricardo Hausmann at our Center for International Development has worked with the Mexican government to create the Mexican Atlas of Economic Complexity. This is an online tool that uses intuitive visualizations of data on productivity and employment to help governments, businesses, and others formulate the most effective policies for economic development. The success of the Mexican Atlas has led to related projects with the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Baja California. As another example, Professor Hanna Rema has studied how reducing air pollution in Mexico City has saved children’s lives. She is currently investigating cell phone apps that provide Mexicans with information on how to protect themselves from air pollution. And as one final example, Juliette Kayyem at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is partnering with other institutions in the United States and Mexico on a series of conferences and publications addressing shared challenges, such as trade, migration, security, and innovation.

The work that Harvard’s faculty is doing in Mexico, and the ways in which Harvard’s Mexican alumni like you are making a positive difference in this country, reinforce in my mind the responsibility we all have to serve our communities, our countries, and our world. Education and the advancement of knowledge are important goals in their own right. But they are even more valuable when they are used to make people’s lives better.

In Mexico, in the United States, and around the world, we see many people who do not think their lives are getting better, and therefore are frustrated with their situations and angry at the people and institutions who lead their societies. Indeed, a recent global survey showed a notable decline in the past few years in people’s confidence in their government leaders and business leaders. Restoring that confidence by making more people’s lives better must be the primary goal of our leaders in both the public and private sectors.

How can our leaders accomplish that goal? Or, to bring the challenge closer to home, what can we in the Harvard community do to help leaders accomplish that goal?

An important part of the answer, I believe, is to teach our students the fundamental values of good leadership. I was discussing these values with Nitin Nohria, the dean of Harvard Business School, and he and I wrote an essay about five values that we see as vital for public and private leaders to advance the common good. Let me describe those values in my own words.

First, good leaders must place a high value on truth. As you know, Harvard’s motto is “Veritas”—or truth—and it is a motto we should remember and embrace. This means that leaders should be honest in what they say and write, and they should not seek to use their positions for personal gain. It also means that leaders should make decisions based on evidence, which provides the best information that we have about the truth. At Harvard, we expect our students to demonstrate personal honesty, and we them to evaluate evidence and apply it effectively in their work.

Second, good leaders must respect individuals regardless of their national origin, race, religion, disability status, and other characteristics. People understandably become disillusioned when their government or their business community do not seem to value them, especially when such treatment stems from their demographic characteristics or status in their community. At Harvard, we teach our students to lead diverse and inclusive organizations. We do this in part by attracting students from underrepresented groups and from around the world, so that our students come to know and become close to people who are different from themselves.

Third, good leaders must be open to views that are different from their own and encourage others to listen to contrary views as well. An effective leader is one who lets others speak up, engages in civil discourse, and is open to principled compromise. President Faust has emphasized this value in her remarks to incoming Harvard students, encouraging them to take part in “the wild rumpus of ideas” and, in doing so, to “talk a lot; listen even more.”

Fourth, good leaders must expect and deliver excellent performance from their organizations. Government officials should provide public services fairly and effectively, and they should defend robust civic institutions and political processes that serve the public interest. Business leaders should ensure that their companies are working efficiently, productively, and effectively for their stakeholders. A good current example of Harvard’s efforts to build high-performing organizations is the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a collaboration between Bloomberg Philanthropies, Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Business School to train mayors and other city leaders to become more innovative in solving urban challenges and to serve their residents better.

Fifth, good leaders should focus on helping people who have been disadvantaged and feel left behind economically or socially. I am very proud that many members of the Harvard community are working to help and empower people who have not had a fair chance to succeed. When leaders create opportunities for people who have not had opportunities before, the leaders can build more cohesive societies and equip more people to contribute productively to economies and to societies.

These five values are ones that we discuss with our students and teach them to apply in their work and in their lives. The ability of Harvard’s graduates to follow these values and to be principled and effective leaders in the public and private sectors can make a profound difference in the world. You and other alumni are making that kind of difference today, and we aim to send more graduates into the world to join you in this mission. Thank you.