Courage and Creativity

Dean Douglas Elmendorf
May 24, 2018

As prepared.

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome. To the graduates, congratulations! I hope you are very proud of all you have accomplished here. I am continually impressed by the passion and talents of students at Harvard Kennedy School and by the astonishing variety of ways you are already working to make a better world. Thank you for the inspiration you have given to me and to all of the faculty and staff of the Kennedy School during your time here. Congratulations and thank you also to all of the people gathered here today who have believed in these graduates and supported them on their journeys. To the parents, spouses, partners, siblings, children, grandparents, and friends who have come to celebrate, my colleagues and I are grateful for the crucial roles you have played in helping these graduates become such amazing people. You should all be very proud today too, and I am delighted that you are here with us.

As we celebrate together today, we should also recognize those loved ones who cannot be with us. For the Kennedy School community, we feel the particular absence of Ngozi Nwaneri, a member of the class of 2018 who passed away unexpectedly this year. Ngozi was an incredibly empathetic and generous person. We should honor his memory by bringing that same spirit of giving to our interactions with one another and our efforts to better our communities.

When we send a new class of Kennedy School graduates back into the world, we send them—we send you—with high expectations. Our expectations are high because each of you has an amazing opportunity to make a positive difference. The mission of the Kennedy School is to improve public policy and public leadership in the United States and around the world in order to make people’s lives better. That mission matters. Good public policy and leadership have led to downward trends in extreme poverty, infant mortality, and deaths in wars around the world. At the same time, bad public policy and leadership have terrible consequences. One of the most heartbreaking current examples is the global refugee crisis, which is the greatest humanitarian challenge of our time.

Your opportunity as graduates of Harvard Kennedy School is to provide the principled and effective public leadership that can improve policy and improve lives. Your opportunity is to sustain progress in areas where the world is doing well and to turn things around in areas where it is not. We expect you in the class of 2018 to seize this opportunity, and to make us even prouder of you in the years ahead.

Just before 2018 started, my wife, Karen, and I received a holiday card from our friends David Yang and Beth Moses. Beth is a psychologist, and David works to advance human rights; both are dedicated to improving the world around them in their own ways. The message in their card said, in part, “We wish for our world in the new year courage and creativity to meet our challenges and to bridge our divides.” I want to echo that message as we send you onto the next stages of your journeys: I wish for you, courage and creativity to meet the many challenges in the world and to bridge the large divides we face.

Some forms of courage are physical. Abdi Ismail Isse of the class of 2017 does humanitarian work for the Red Cross that has brought him to war-ravaged countries, where bombs have fallen around him and where he has been beaten and threatened with execution. With his life on the line, he has continued to bring aid to people who need it. We should all be moved by his physical courage. But other forms of courage—intellectual courage and moral courage—are crucially important as well.

Sometimes you must find the courage to stand up—to stand up for something or stand up against something. I hope and expect that you will have the courage to stand up for truth and integrity, and against dishonesty and corruption. For knowledge and evidence, and against ignorance and fabrications. For people who are being left behind or left out, and against concentrations of power and fortune for the benefit of self-serving elites. For the rule of law and a free press and a strong civil society and effective governance, and against attacks on those institutions. For freedom, and against oppression. For excellence, and against prejudice and injustice.

But courage is not just about standing up for what you believe. Sometimes courage is about sitting down and listening to what you may not initially believe. David Hempton, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, once told me that “deans need to have a generosity of spirit.” David did not define what he meant; like a good sermon, his comment required reflection. But I took him to mean that I should try to see issues through the eyes of others and to act in ways that reflected an understanding of their perspectives. We saw this idea in the recent report on diversity and inclusion at Harvard that urged us all to “speak bravely and listen generously.” Generous listening can take as much courage as brave speaking, because listening to people with whom you strongly disagree or with whom you think you have nothing in common is hard. But understanding others’ perspectives and acting on that understanding is crucial for making a better world.

To be clear, listening and understanding do not always mean agreeing and compromising. When we look back on past public policies and leaders, we should not look equally fondly on the different sides of every issue or wish we had always just split the difference between one side and another. On the contrary, we need to make moral judgments. In a recent lecture, Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and now back here as a member of our faculty, praised the brave acts of those who resisted injustices over the course of American history, saying that their acts are “bright spots … [that] shine light in the darkness.” I urge you to follow your moral principles and create such bright spots. But I also urge you to recognize that your assessment of light and dark at any point in time may not be completely right. It is too easy for each of us to view ourselves as being on the side of the angels. And thus, our visiting faculty member E.J. Dionne gave a lecture in which he quoted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saying “It’s always wise to seek the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth.” As you have the courage to stand up for what you think is right, have the courage also to search for the error in your truth.

My friends Beth and David wished for the world, courage and creativity to meet our challenges and bridge our divides. Creativity is as essential as courage. If we keep following the same paths we have always followed, we will not make the progress in the world that we need to make. Public problems rarely solve themselves; instead, they are solved by active leadership. Think, for example, of Juan Manuel Santos, who graduated from the Kennedy School in 1981 and is now the president of Colombia. His country suffered from a civil war that lasted half a century, but he led the country to end that war, through his determination and creative vision. In his acceptance speech for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, President Santos urged us all—leaders and private citizens—to “awaken the creative capacity for goodness, for building peace.”

Public leaders need to use creative capacity not only to build peace but to resolve so many old challenges that have not been resolved and to effectively address new challenges as they emerge. Public leaders need to be creative all of the time—whenever budgets are tight, or political pressures build, or changing demographics alter existing social arrangements, or technological change disrupts traditional economic patterns, or environmental conditions shift, or moral views evolve.

You will each have your own opportunities to apply your creative capacity. Some of you will have new ideas for strengthening citizenship and accountability in democracies. Others will create new approaches to broadening economic opportunity. Or you will develop new ways to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts between countries—or within countries. Or you will creatively bridge the public and private sectors. Or use data and technology to improve the public services delivered by governments. Or reduce bias and prejudice in our public and private institutions. Or help to make a better world in so many other ways.

You can sustain and enhance your creativity by remaining always curious and always open to new ideas. I do not mean that you should always grab hold of new ideas and run with them. Plenty of new ideas are bad ideas, and you should examine all ideas carefully and evaluate them using evidence in the ways you have practiced here and in other parts of your careers. But I do mean that you should keep exploring, keep asking questions, and keep challenging yourselves. That spirit of restlessness will help you be the creative public leaders the world so badly needs.

Let me end here. As you take the next steps of your personal journeys, I will leave you with the wish that struck me so strongly from my friends’ holiday card: May you have the courage and creativity to meet the world’s challenges and to bridge its divides. I am so eager to see what you can do. Congratulations!

Dean Doug Elmendorf delivers remarks at the Harvard Kennedy School 2018 Diploma Ceremony.

Explore Commencement 2018

Watch events, read about exceptional graduates, and learn more about the Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2018.