Principled and Effective Public Leadership
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
May 30, 2019

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome. Although the temperature in Cambridge today is cool, we are gathered together with great warmth in our hearts on this joyous occasion.

To the Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2019—now graduates of Harvard Kennedy School—congratulations! You have achieved so much during your time here—in our academic programs and in your other activities—and I hope you are proud of all you have done. Your passion and talents have inspired me and all of the faculty and staff of the Kennedy School, and we are grateful to you for that. I want to offer a particular shout-out to Lucila Takjerad, who gave such a terrific speech in Harvard Yard this morning. Lucila, we are honored to call you one of our own.

I also want to recognize the families and friends of the Class of 2019. Your love and guidance and support have played such important roles in helping these graduates find their way here and thrive here. So, to the parents, grandparents, spouses, partners, siblings, children, and friends of the graduates, congratulations to you as well! I hope you are proud of your contributions to this momentous occasion, and I am delighted that you are here with us today. Will the members of the class of 2019 please rise and join me in thanking your families and friends?

At this morning’s ceremony in Harvard Yard, we gathered with graduates and family members and friends from across Harvard University. Now is our chance to celebrate as the Kennedy School community. The students, faculty, staff, families, and friends who are here today come from across the United States and more than 90 other countries. We come with an incredible range of backgrounds and interests and plans for our lives. So, what has drawn us together, what unites us?

We are united by our commitment to advancing the public interest—to improving public policy and public leadership so people can have safer, freer, and more prosperous lives. That commitment can be fulfilled by working in governments or civil society or the private sector. Many of you in the Class of 2019 are heading in each of those directions next, and I know that many of you will work across sectors and move between sectors during the course of your careers.

I expect that you will also move between different roles in public leadership over time: Sometimes you may be leaders in the standard sense of standing at podiums, chairing meetings, or heading up political tickets. At other times, you will be leaders in less obvious ways. Leadership is not about being in charge in a formal sense but about using power and influence to accomplish common goals. And people derive power and influence from different sources—from formal authority sometimes, but also from substantive knowledge, insights into people, moral standing, networks of allies, and more. So, there are many kinds of public leadership.

As you go through your careers and lives, whatever sector you are in and whatever role you play, I hope you will feel lucky to have the opportunity to serve others. When George H. W. Bush passed away last year, Barack Obama commented that President Bush’s life was “a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling.” So I have found it in my life, and so I believe you will find it in yours.

With this amazing opportunity for public service comes important responsibility as well. And that responsibility is especially significant for those of us who are privileged to be part of the Harvard Kennedy School community.

The responsibility that rests on all of our shoulders is to be principled and effective in our public service—in our jobs and in the rest of our lives. You may wonder if there is a recipe for being a principled and effective public leader. I have to admit that I do not know if there is a surefire recipe, but I do believe that certain ingredients are essential. Let me describe the four main ingredients in my recipe for principled and effective public leadership, all ingredients that you have tasted, at least, during your time at the Kennedy School.

The first ingredient is a commitment to serving others rather than serving ourselves. As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said in the Kennedy School’s Forum this spring: In public service, “ambition for self needs to become ambition for the greater good.” Too many public leaders in the world today have lost sight of the difference between their personal interests and their community’s or nation’s interests.

One crucial part of serving others is to be trustworthy. The official Code of Federal Regulations in the United States begins the section on public service with the statement “Public service is a public trust.” The Nolan Principles in the United Kingdom have the same essence, and similar examples exist in many other countries. This public trust is trust we need to earn every day, in every job we do, by adhering to high moral standards. I do not mean just the minimum legal or regulatory standards, but higher standards of honesty and integrity.

Another crucial part of serving others is serving all others, and not just people like ourselves. That means serving people who are different from us in their demographic characteristics, in their ideological views, and in other ways. As President Juan Manuel Santos said here yesterday, empathy is the most important value for any public leader. And empathy leads naturally to a particular concern for people who have not had a fair chance to succeed, and who therefore especially deserve our attention.

A second main ingredient for principled and effective public leadership is a set of skills that allow us to understand public challenges and overcome them. Some of these skills involve factual knowledge and rigorous analysis, based on logic, data, institutional detail, and historical experience. Effective public leaders need to have the knowledge and do the analysis themselves or be able to learn from, and ask the right questions of, other people. Other skills we need involve management and administration, because most public leaders spend their careers in large and complex organizations. Still other key skills are communication, persuasion, and negotiation, which effective public leaders use to understand, serve, and inform people, and to move them forward. And still other needed skills are more personal—the skills of self-understanding and self-discipline. As a thoughtful student of public leadership once said to me, you need to lead yourself before you can lead others.

You have practiced these skills during your time at the Kennedy School. In class, around the campus, and in field-based learning experiences, you have enhanced skills you came with and developed new ones. But your learning is not done. Throughout your careers, your intellectual curiosity and your desire to serve will push you to continually expand your skills.

A third main ingredient for principled and effective public leadership is listening to people we disagree with, even if those disagreements seem insurmountable. I am not suggesting that you should always compromise or be morally neutral. On the contrary, I believe that public leaders should make moral judgments and stand by them. But I am suggesting that you should be open to the possibility that your judgments do not represent the full truth. And the best way to fumble toward a fuller truth is to try to understand people who have formed different judgments.

I have seen again and again in my own life that many people who seem to have the same underlying devotion to fairness and progress that I have nonetheless evaluate public policies and public leaders very differently than I do. I do not intend to give up my principles, and I find that talking and listening across differences in principles can be hard and frustrating. However, I am convinced that building a better world requires public leaders to communicate across such differences. So, I continue to work at doing this myself, and I urge you to do so as well.

My fourth and final ingredient for principled and effective public leadership is holding ourselves accountable to the standards I have just described and holding other public leaders accountable as well. These standards should be the foundation of our public service. We should adhere to them even when doing so makes it more difficult to establish specific policies or approaches we favor, because upholding standards for public leaders is more important in the long run than any specific policies or approaches. Too many leaders abandon these standards in order to remain “relevant,” as some people say. That abandonment of standards may or may not lead to better outcomes in certain cases, but the cumulative damage to public life can be very large.

We also need to hold other public leaders accountable to these standards. In some places, this accountability can be enforced, in part, through public norms and institutions—including the rule of law, checks and balances between branches and levels of government, and transparency fostered by a free and vigorous press. Such norms and institutions should be respected and defended wherever possible. But we also need to hold other public leaders accountable through our individual words and deeds if we have the liberty to do so. Our reactions to other leaders’ behavior either encourages that behavior or discourages it. So, if we would object when an opponent speaks or acts in a certain way, we should object when an ally does the same thing. And as much as possible, we should object both openly as leaders in the public square and privately as citizens in the voting booth.

I do not want to sound unrealistic. Because people disagree, governance unavoidably involves some compromising. And no leader is perfect. Therefore, when public leaders violate our standards, deciding how to respond can be challenging. Moreover, some public leaders occupy positions in which speaking openly about others runs counter to their main responsibilities. But whenever we are inclined to avert our eyes, we should each ask ourselves, if we do not speak up, who will? And if no one speaks up, how do we expect that our standards will be upheld?

Well, that completes my brief recipe for principled and effective public leadership. Your communities, your countries, and our world need you to be principled and effective public leaders. People are counting on you.

Despite all of the challenges in the world, you should go forth from Harvard Kennedy School with boundless optimism about the good you can do. You came to the Kennedy School with a deep and abiding commitment to the public interest, and with extraordinary talent and drive that give this commitment real force in the world. You leave the Kennedy School with more skills, honed values, renewed or strengthened passion, friends from around the world, and an enduring home here.

Travel safe. Stay in touch. Congratulations!