How Can Harvard Best Instill Vision in Our Leaders?


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By Akio Matsumura

The heat of August is a time for many to seek a rare vacation. This is as true for President Obama as it is for a small business owner or a teacher. Indeed, for students, parents, and teachers it is also the last pause before a headlong dive into the coming school year.

Syrian Situation: Farah Pandithf, Institute of Politics resident fellow and former State Department special representative to Muslim communities, makes a point to Belfer Center Future of Diplomacy Director Nicholas Burns during a JFK Jr. Forum on the Syrian crisis. (Photo Credit: Harvard Kennedy School)Syrian Situation: Farah Pandith, Institute of Politics resident fellow and former State Department special representative to Muslim communities, makes a point to Belfer Center Future of Diplomacy Director Nicholas Burns during a JFK Jr. Forum on the Syrian crisis. (Photo Credit: Harvard Kennedy School)

Since the Global Forum conferences in Oxford, Moscow, Kyoto, Rio de Janeiro, Konya, and Jerusalem I have had the privilege to work with many extraordinary students. Their fresh ideas and dynamic energy helped produce better outcomes at each meeting. In 2007 I was fortunate to be introduced to Chris Cote, then a sophomore at Tufts University, whose contributions, from managing our blog to developing our strategy, have been indispensable. Next month, he will begin his studies at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Many of his classmates will be from other countries, sent by their governments for an elite education and on whom their countries will rely to lead them through a difficult but hopeful future.

Beyond the academic curriculum, future leaders benefit from the idealism a class fosters. The friendships that grow during school — benefitting from trust only classmates can share — will be an invaluable asset that the students will lean on throughout their careers, invisible connections that help transcend institutional and hierarchical norms. But friendships do not make a leader. Only those who use their time to cultivate an independent vision will be ready to face the challenges that the next decades will bring.

And those challenges will be immense and unprecedented. Nuclear weapons and the many issues their existence exposes all countries to will top the national security list, but adding to the complexity is the growing territory controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other ethnic and religious conflict, the increasing number of nuclear power plants in vulnerable regions, and the intensifying effects of global warming. The challenges transcend traditional disciplines, ballooning in scope from human security to environmental security and global financial security and all the connections between them. They also transcend our traditional sense of time. After World War II, it only took Japan twenty years to go from ruin to economic boom. Now, a nuclear weapons attack (now with weapons dozens of times more dangerous) or a nuclear power plant disaster (the spent fuel pool at Fukushima’s Reactor 4 matches the power of 14,000 Hiroshima bombs) could immediately put huge land areas out of use for hundreds of years. And the climate changes we have caused and are escalating are doing similar work.

We have not yet developed leaders or institutions who can work on such issues. Who in the 1940s would have thought that today’s policies could have implications thousands of years down the road? To create effective policy over a scope of time that is difficult even just to grasp, we need to educate our leaders to think differently. How do our actions now affect future generations, not just for our children but for our great grandchildren? What is our responsibility, as leaders and as humans?

Harvard University is the best place to train a new generation of leaders: its faculty extends across a number of disciplines and its resources are significant. The most ambitious students at the Harvard Kennedy School will no doubt take advantage of the excellent resources at the Law School and the Business School during their time at the university. I challenge those most looking to cultivate a deep and independent vision of leadership to venture only a bit farther across campus, to the Harvard Divinity School. Long term vision comes more naturally to religious leaders, who have spent much time studying texts and history hundreds and thousands of years old. The short term skills of management, negotiation, and analysis will help avert many international political crises. But we need leaders thinking in generations, not presidential terms.

Who will rise to be the new type of leader, with an appropriately bold vision for the next generations? By facilitating students with vision to lead through new types of conflict, Harvard will lead in its own right.

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