In the course of a career devoted to leadership, one inevitable task is choosing an institution to house the manuscripts and other documents generated over a lifetime. I have decided to give the archive of my half century of work on leadership to Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, so brilliantly led by David Gergen, for two reasons. First, I believe leadership is more important and more endangered than ever. And, second, I believe no place is better equipped than the center to advance that noble and essential work.
Almost anyone can tell you why today’s need for inspired public leadership is so great. Recent studies indicate that two-thirds of the population of the United States has little or no faith in its leaders, be they public, private, or corporate. Americans are rightfully concerned that they are losing their edge in both leadership and innovation. Globally, leadership is increasingly in the hands of ideologues, religious extremists, the military, despots, and other non-democratic leaders. At the same time that the world has become increasingly complex and interconnected, it faces the most palpable threat of nuclear destruction since the height of the Cold War. And women and religious and ethnic minorities are more threatened than at any time since World War II.
In light of the urgency of the need for a New Leadership, there is no better place for it to evolve than at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. Backed by the extraordinary resources of one of the world’s finest universities, the center has the ability to recruit and inspire the best faculty and best students from around the world. As such, it is a place where a truly new vision for the future of leadership can develop. And the center can do far more than fill the immediate need for more able government officials, CEOs, and other leaders. It will be a place where new paradigms of leadership are born and where, not just leaders, but leaders of leaders can develop their insights and abilities.
Leadership has already undergone profound changes in recent years. In part because of the corrosive effects of recent corporate scandals, the old corporate pyramid is mistrusted, if not crumbling. And the old military model of leadership is increasingly anachronistic in such a world where the ability to control and command is so much less important than the ability to orchestrate, counsel and inspire.
Participants in the Center for Public Leadership understand that a worldwide leadership crisis is as great a threat to humanity as plague, famine, terrorism, or nuclear disaster. The center already aspires to produce leaders as great as the heroic leaders of the past but with a very different mind-set from those old-style leaders who now seem less and less able to guide their organizations and institutions through the turbulent early 21st Century.
At the center, a new definition of leadership is already emerging. That definition is constantly evolving, but some parameters are already clear. Unlike the typical leaders of the past, the new leaders will embrace change and new ideas instead of fearing or resisting them. They will be both reflective and action-oriented. They will understand that collaboration almost always leads to the most creative outcomes. They will be able to share power. They will be able to make decisions that must be made even when all the data are not available. At the same time, they will not be afraid to refrain from action when prudent restraint is called for. They will be capable of generating and sustaining trust, by being purveyors of hope but not inflators of unrealistic expectations. They will encourage transparency and will eschew the use of fear. They will take their pleasure, not in exercising power, but in seeing those around them succeed and flourish. They will be people of principle. They will find their joy in problem-solving, not in creating monuments. They will always be learning, for the sheer pleasure of it.
In an age as fluid and uncertain as ours, leaders must prepare for what has not yet been imagined. The new leaders will be like good first-time parents, able to do the right thing before they completely understand the situation. They will be imaginative as well as practical. They will relish diversity. And they will be compassionate. Such leaders are made, not born. And Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership is one of a handful of places where prospective leaders at all stages in their careers can both study leadership as part of a great university and develop their own leadership capabilities. As such, it is a place for pragmatic dreamers, people who realize that the most visionary leaders must acquire specific skills and habits. Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership is a place where current and future leaders can work together on real problems, with the understanding that the reward is not their own success but the prospect of a better world.
I invite you to join me in taking the Center for Public Leadership to the next level of impact and influence.
Co-Chairman, CPL Global Advisory Council