The United States of America was once the Global Gold Standard for Democracy. Why would today’s America not respond well to a message of Unity? As perplexing as it sounds, it is what we see today in America and globally. How do we fix this in the USA and worldwide? This question keeps Governor Deval Patrick pondering and exercising servant leadership daily. In this episode, he points to the challenge of getting the message of Unity across in this Age of Sensationalism and Celebrities; why he remains hopeful for a brighter tomorrow as bold leaders pave the way; and his ‘Mandela Moment’ on the continent of Africa. Tune in and decide for yourself how we inspire hope and ‘possibility’ for America and the world!
Listen to the podcast here.
“USA Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s Leadership Way”
Why A Message of ‘Unity’ Does Not Sell Well in the USA or the World Today
In this episode, our thoughtful bold leader joins us from the beautiful mountainous area of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, well-renowned for its annual musical festivals, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra performances. He is a former presidential candidate. He is also the first Black Governor in the State of Massachusetts in the United States of America and served two terms between 2007 and 2015.
He is the former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Department of Justice during the Clinton administration, partner of two Boston law firms, and a senior executive of two Fortune top 50 companies. He is currently a Professor of Practice and Co-Director for the Center of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. He grew up on the Southern side of Chicago. Assisted by a nonprofit called A Better Chance, he attended the prestigious Milton Academy, Harvard College, and Harvard Law School. He lived and worked between college and law school in East and West Africa.
Stay tuned as we learn more about his ‘Mandela Moment,’ which happened during a rocky hitchhike ride from Cairo in North Africa to Khartoum in Sudan; what truly ‘Makes America Great’ (the American Ideals); and why a message of Unity is harder to hear in this age of Sensationalism and Celebrities. We warmly welcome the 71st and first Black governor of the State of Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick. Welcome to the show.
Governor, it’s always so wonderful to see you. Thank you so much for joining this conversation, and it’s such a privilege to have you as part of this Global Mandela Leadership Movement for Change. Thank you.
The honor is mine. Thank you so much.
I thought a good place to begin is near the beginning. I know you grew up on the South side of Chicago with a wonderful mother, Emily Mae. You lived in a two-bed apartment in the Robert Taylor Housing Project.
Quite close. Not in it, but half a block in.
Fast forward to 50-plus years, the former Governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, renamed part of Wabash Avenue in your honor and called it Deval Patrick Way. I thought a wonderful starting point would be understanding the ‘Deval Patrick Leadership Way’ and how you would define leadership.
I’ll define it first as we define it at the Kennedy School in the Center for Public Leadership, where I work now, which is this notion of principled, effective public leadership. This means leadership that is not in the public sector but leadership that in any sector is elevating the public good and is doing that in a way that is about conviction and delivering results.
I personally believe in leadership, which I would describe as servant leadership. There is humility that should come with the weight and responsibility of leadership that you should listen to and engage with the people you lead that you should support and encourage their own engagement with each other. Also, the best leaders ask people to turn to each other rather than on each other, which I’m sad to say is the latter version of which is a lot of what we get nowadays.
That’s an interesting segway, and I know you’re Co-Chair for the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) and also a Professor of Practice in Public Leadership. My following question from that is you personally have worked in multiple sectors. You’ve had a remarkable career from the business sector to the nonprofit to the public service sector in the Clinton administration. President Clinton appointed you as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division in the DOJ.
Also, you were the first African-American governor and the 71st governor of the State of Massachusetts between 2007 and 2015. My question is, given that incredible track record of experience and living through a lot of the changes, in the United States now, how do you believe public sector leadership has changed, number one? Following on from that, what do you think are the critical success factors given these remarkable deep divides in public sector leadership now?
There’s so much in your question. Let me try it this way, but be mindful that this is one person’s opinion and perspective. I think it has always been the case. Political leaders in particular and candidates have had to displace some combination of substance and performance art. You couldn’t be just a policy wonk. You had to have some way of drawing people in, but you couldn’t be a performer. You had to have some substance.Political leaders have to display some combination of substance and performance art. Click To Tweet
Sadly, it’s all about performance art. It’s all about outrage and attention-grabbing. There’s very little listening. I’ll tell you what I sense, and you mentioned the divisions in the country. I had a hunch and still have a hunch that we are less divided than we are portrayed. It’s the division that gets the media’s attention that is driven by and in social media.
We started a project at CPL called ‘Shared America’ to examine that. In the early days, I very much confirmed or affirmed that that is true. It’s equally dangerous to our democracy but what is happening is that more and more people are “checking out.” They see all that on TV. They see all that in Washington, and it’s just noise. After which, some powerful people will make the decisions, if there are any decisions at all. That does not portend well for democracy if it’s just not functioning but is also discouraging.
There is something about leadership that we often forget, but not always. There are some shining exceptions to that. President Biden is an exception to that. Not enough of our leadership is interested in serving the people they’re elected to serve. It’s quite apparent. There’s no sense of conscience calling them back to the servant part of their assignment, and that is deeply concerning. There are hopeful signs, too, but those are some of my concerns about our leadership now.Not enough of our leadership is actually interested in serving the people the elected to serve. Click To Tweet
In the broader sense of leadership, taking it beyond the public sector leadership in the United States, what are the big leadership issues that keep you concerned and awake at night and also motivate and inspire you to do this work with the next generation at Harvard Kennedy School?
I will say that the things that have concerned me all along about public or private leadership are the very things that caused me to run for Governor in the first place, which is the first thing I’d ever run for. I still observe them. It still concerns me, but it reminds me to come to the part of what is hopeful because I do think there are hopeful signs. Number one, we’ve been stuck in a fascination or an obsession with the short-term. In business, there’s quarter-to-quarter management, and in politics, it’s the election cycle to election cycle or news cycle to news cycle when we must all be about the next generation.
We have to make the hard decisions now that will make a difference over time. That is how a way was made for us. It’s not that we can’t be in the moment. That’s not what I’m saying. We have to be mindful of the precedent and consequential outcomes of the decisions we make right now. Also, in more and more cases, try to draw the long-term into the center of the policy or the business decisions we’re making now. That’s the first thing.
The second thing that’s on my mind is that whether in public or private life, we have leaders who’ve spent a lot of time and energy thinking about how to get the job, not so much about how to do it. When they get the job, they want to accumulate political capital, and not spend it. As I said, I’ve observed this in both the public and the private sector, but it’s the spending of that political capital. It’s bringing your credibility to bear that persuades people to do the things that need to be done to govern for or manage for a generation to come.
To bring that generational responsibility to our work, whether it’s as a business leader, a private sector leader, or a not-for-profit sector leader is critical. That is what I look for. That is what I celebrate. That was so central to what Mandela himself was about. Speaking of Mandela, there’s another thing, and that’s “grace.” None of us are complete. We’re all broken. We all have our blind spots. We all have our limitations.
If our leaders modeled more kindness and showed us that you didn’t have to confuse that for weakness or a lack of mental toughness and conviction, it would spawn and encourage more of that behavior, which I know exists among ordinary people to bring that out into the light. Also, I’ve seen that in my own experience.If our leaders modeled more kindness and showed us that you didn't have to confuse that for weakness or for a lack of mental toughness and conviction, it would spawn more of that behavior in people. Click To Tweet
You make such a powerful point. I was sharing with a friend that kindness is one of the most underrated, underappreciated, and undervalued assets we have in the world. The question is, from a leader exercising leadership point of view, how do we engender more of that? To your point around the issue of short-term focus at the expense of long-term gain, how do we break the cycle within the systems when the systems are rewarding short-term behavior?
Among my business activities, I’m an impact investor. I launched an Impact Fund at Bain Capital after I left the governor’s office. Impact investing is very much about how to think about multiple bottom lines and how to manage for long-term value. Being able to deliver both social or environmental measurable impact over time as well as superior financial return and showing that you may choose to, but you don’t have to trade one for the other, raises some important questions about how investing and business are normally done. There are sectoral changes and movements that are driving that mostly from a younger generation or two. That’s very exciting and encouraging.
In the public sector, the hardest advice I give to candidates who call and say, “How should I think about this?” I always ask them, first of all, why they want to run for this or that because they immediately launch into their path to victory and so forth, like how much money they’re going to raise and how many endorsements and all that.
I ask them as we explore. Are they willing to lose? Are they willing to bring real conviction? It does not mean that they have no time for people who don’t already agree with them. That’s not what I mean, but that they have a reason for wanting to serve and let that reason come through. People will know. They’ll know when you don’t. They’ll know when it’s just ambition, but it’s so way out of fashion to bring real conviction to political ambition. One of the things I’m trying to do is encourage the folks I teach and come in contact with at the Harvard Kennedy School and elsewhere to bring all of themselves, including those convictions right to the surface as they run.
That’s a great point, Governor. When you ran in 2020, you stepped into the presidential race. You yourself mentioned that America is Great because America is Good. It comes back to a lot of these core values of American democracy, the American experiment. I also note the Center of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School where you’re engaged in a project of “shared aspirations.”
Can you share a little more about that initiative? To what extent do you think getting back to those core values of America is Good and critical in the world of American and world leadership now? I’d like you to contextualize that because you also said when you ran for president, and to a large extent, winning that kind of race is about sensationalism and being a celebrity. You don’t see yourself as a sensationalist or a celebrity. How do you juxtaposition those “shared aspirations” and “shared values” with the politics of the day that may or may not be about sensationalism and being a celebrity?
There is so much in your question, Anne, and I’m touched that you would bring up my presidential campaign. It only lasted fifteen minutes. Their long-held views that our greatness as a nation is not because of our wealth or our military might. There are great nations of great wealth and great militaries that have come and gone with the winds of time.
Our greatness has to do with being organized, and the only nation in human history organized is not around geography, race, religion, or the kinds of things that normally define a nation. We’re organized around a handful of civic ideals. This notion of freedom, we have defined over time to mean equality, opportunity, and fair play.
We were flawed from the start. Make no mistake about that, but it’s the striving toward those ideals, those ideals being enduring and inspiring to everybody everywhere. When we are working to close those gaps, we are stronger. When we are careless about closing those gaps, we are less strong. History plays that out. You talk to most diplomats and American military leaders, and they will say the same thing.
Our influence and our power have a lot to do with our honesty about the gaps and our sincerity about trying to close them. Domestically, The American Dream that I’ve lived growing up as a poor kid and having a way through education to be exposed to the kinds of opportunities I’ve had is a compelling part of that story, but it’s broken. The American Dream is broken. We’ve had economic mobility stalled out and economic inequality growing.
This didn’t happen overnight. This has been going on. We’ve been creeping toward it for the last many years. Someone pointed this out to me. If you read slave narratives, they are more hopeful about the day when their opportunity or their chance would come in their generation or the next than many young people in urban communities are now.It’s really hard for the message of unity to be heard at a time when what gets attention is division and sensationalism. Click To Tweet
For all of the sensational division that is promoted by our would-be leaders, what you see when you step back is the so-called grievances of White working people and rural people, the economic insecurity, the social isolation, the despair as measured by things like suicide rates or addiction rates are the same things that Black and Brown people in urban communities have been feeling for generations.
What our leaders don’t do, and what frustrates me so much, is call attention to that shared pain, hurt, and disappointment to acknowledge that and not act as if the one is responsible for the other’s pain and build political opportunity and advantage on that. Instead, use the acknowledging of that reality, and the solutions to it as a way to unify us and to lift us. That’s what frustrates me. President Biden is trying to do that, but it is hard for that message to be heard at a time when what gets attention is division and sensationalism.
I asked the other part of the question about sensationalism versus being a celebrity. Is that critical? How do you break through that?
I honestly don’t know. There are some structural barriers, including the way our social media is run. I don’t think that we should ban social media, and I don’t think we should limit what anybody can say. There are First Amendment limitations on trying to regulate that, but if you have a right to free speech, you do not have a right to free reach.
It means the algorithm that chooses to inflame and elevate division and hate, there’s no right to that. That’s a business decision that companies have made, and that we should regulate but that’s only part of it. We have to have some of those folks who have a voice who are celebrities choose grace and kindness. You call that out and elevate that as well. Some do.
You said to remind me to ask you about the hopeful part of it. I was struck by what you said that some of the early narratives of people enslaved were more hopeful than many urban stories nowadays. What are you hopeful about?
In the United States, we were stuck inside and away from others when the George Floyd video was released. Thousands and thousands of people from all around the world of all backgrounds showed up in the streets. It was overwhelmingly peaceful day after day, week after week, and month after month. When I think about our famously short attention span in this country, many of them were young, but not only young people who were acknowledging a bridge too far and who were taking the opportunity, in addition to police excesses to call out economic and business excesses. The ways in which our public sector isn’t serving the needs of the general public.
There were ways in which it felt like a generation had put its collective foot down and said, “We’re not going to do this anymore (enough!).” I don’t think we have to throw the whole baby out with bath water, but I love the idea that there is more energy around reexamining the way we do business. I say that as a capitalist, this notion of moving toward a view of long-term value instead of short-term gain.
Also, the way we do politics. There are so many great ideas about how to fix the way our democracy functions. They haven’t moved in Congress yet, but there are great ideas there and there’s a great movement to elect members of the House and the Senate who will move those ideas. The wind is at our back. The momentum is with us in that respect.
As we do get the government to be more responsive to people, I’ve never met anybody who wants the government to solve every problem in everybody’s life, but to do its part to help us help ourselves, I see that element over time and faster coming back into public discourse driven so much by young people who’ve decided that they don’t have to put their idealism aside. I love that.
It’s wonderful to be around that energy, which you are in the work that you’re doing. Going back a little to your own childhood, I know that you referenced the fact that in the South side of Chicago growing up, you remember the days when the steel mills left town when there was uncertainty, adversity, and fear. You’ve also alluded to the fact that there is a shared collective pain. Also, the importance of bridging those divides and having this understanding that there are parts of America that have been left behind.
Can you take us back to a moment in your childhood that stood out for you? I know you mentioned that when there was that uncertainty, the opioid crisis appeared. It even showed up in your own home. Is there a particular moment that stands out for you as being a defining and difficult moment? How did you feel? What was the context and how did you navigate through that?
My parents split when I was about four years old. My father who was a jazz musician moved to New York. My mother dropped out of high school to marry my father. She couldn’t take care of my sister and me on her own in the apartment. We moved in then to the tenement that my grandparents lived in, and there were various other relatives there as well.
I think of that as home on Wabash Avenue. We were on public assistance for a while. My mother was depressed and despairing. She felt left behind. She did ultimately get her GED (General Education Diploma) and got a job at the post office with benefits, which was her beginning to lift herself out of that despair and poverty and get her independence. I didn’t know all that when I was 4 and 5 years old. We were part of a real community where every child was under the jurisdiction of every adult on the block. If you were hungry and you were out playing, and somebody else’s kitchen door was open, their mom would easily say, “Come on and take a little bit of this,” and they were poor too. The expectation was that we would do the same for their kid.
I don’t mean to suggest that nostalgia should drive policy or what have you. I’m simply saying that we are all hungry for that sense of community, that we belong to each other. It has nothing to do with socioeconomic status. It has everything to do with the human need to feel like they belong. There is a way in which that was expressed in my childhood, both by the adults in that community and by government policy.
We could get food stamps when we’re hungry. There was affordable housing. When I was ready to go to work, there was a bus or a subway that would reliably get me to the job and back again. There was an economy that was growing out to make a way for other people and a new entrance into the economy and not just up to the well-connected.
When I got that scholarship when I was fourteen years old to go to boarding school outside of Boston, I had that feeling, and I knew. There were as many other ambitious and talented kids who would have made the most of that opportunity and who didn’t get that opportunity. Being mindful of that, it’s not the guilt I’m talking about. It’s, “What is your generational responsibility? What are you supposed to do to make it possible in whatever you do? If you’re a laborer, what do you do to make it a little easier for the folks who come behind you?” These are lessons I try to take away from that experience growing up and have tried to let guide my choices professionally and personally.
It also sounds like this scholarship, you went to Milton Academy outside of Boston. It was a nonprofit that helped you, A Better Chance. To what extent did that help you navigate out of that feeling of despair?
I’m struggling a little bit with your question, Anne, because it wasn’t a feeling of despair. No one in my family had gone to university, but I wanted to go, and no one in my family discouraged me. They never said, “That’s not for you.” No one in my family had seen Milton Academy before I got there on my own the night before classes began.
I remember my mother was asked by someone at the airport as she was seeing me off how she felt about her son going off to this school. She said, “He knows his way home. If it doesn’t work out, he can come home.” She was so matter-of-fact about it. I was a bundle of nerves. I began to make friends at Milton, and there were adults there who were kind to me and who understood in words I couldn’t have expressed at the time just what a cultural shock it was.
I will say that I began to realize that my new friends in Milton were interested in so much in my life back on the South side of Chicago, and my old friends on the South side were interested so much in my life at Milton Academy to the point where it felt like the price of admission to the one world was rejecting the other. You were straddling these two worlds trying to figure out how to stay in balance and belong anywhere.
I learned early that I was going to have to figure out who I was and be that all the time, no matter what environment I was in. I would lose some friends or potential friends in this place or another, but that had to do with their limitations on how they felt you had to be and what box you had to fit in based on what they saw or what limitations they were going to impose. I didn’t have to impose those limitations on myself. I feel like learning that kind of lesson as early as 14 or 15 was pretty helpful.
It’s a big lesson. Fast forward to your political career, you’re a very humble human being. You’ve also personally alluded to the missteps that we all make. Mandela even said he’s ‘not a saint but he keeps on trying.’ This issue of having worked in multiple sectors, in business, public, and nonprofits, sometimes there are different hats with conflicting needs, agendas, and desires.
Sometimes even personal conflicts with public loyalties. Is there an example that has been difficult for you that has created a conflict for you? What was that context, and how did you find your way through that? How did you help define what is your guiding North Star, what prevails, and, how do I get through this “conflict of interest?”
When I was appointed to head the Civil Rights Division in the first term of the Clinton administration, I was his (President Bill Clinton’s) third choice. Our mutual friend, meaning the president’s and my mutual friend and former colleague, Lani Guinier, was the first named. She was brilliant. (Editor’s note: Lani Guinier is an American educator, legal scholar, and civil rights theorist; the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and the first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship at HLS. Before Harvard in 1998, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School for ten years. Conservative journalists and Republican senators mounted a campaign against her nomination, branding her a “quota queen,” a phrase first used in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Clint Bolick, a Reagan-era U.S. Justice Department official. She was portrayed as a racial polarizer who believed—in the words of George Will—that “only blacks can properly represent blacks.” Clinton withdrew Guinier’s nomination on June 4, 1993). I met Clinton through Lani when he was Governor of Arkansas, and we sued him in a voting rights case. She was exactly the right person or the logical person for him to nominate, but after several months of controversy, her nomination was withdrawn. It was painful to her friends and the civil rights community because it had been twelve years that the division had not been in the civil rights business, frankly.
He tried to float another name, and that one flamed out as well and then he got around to me. I talked to Lani to make sure it was okay because it felt a little like I was stepping over a friend, but she was very encouraging. They wanted to send up a trial balloon. I said, “No, don’t do that. Do all your background. Figure out it’s me or not me. When you’ve decided finally, then let’s go. If it’s me, then let’s go,” and not before.
To their great credit, they waited. This took a whole year, this business of trying two other people and then vetting me. In that whole year, right before my nomination was announced, the Crime Bill passed, and it had some good things like the Violence Against Women Act and community policing, which is a winning strategy. It was a terrific strategy, but it also had three strikes in year out. It reinstated the federal death penalty.
I had spent a good deal of my career defending against the death penalty. I do not believe in the death penalty. There are some things governments do well, and some they don’t. Deciding life or death is one they don’t. By the way, one of the people I most admired at law school had gone into the Justice Department as the number two person and objected to the bill.There are some things governments do well and some that they don't. Deciding life or death is one they don't. Click To Tweet
He resigned when the bill passed and was signed because he said this sentencing would lead to mass incarceration. It spawned a whole movement of state equivalents across the country and exactly that outcome. This bill has been signed. I’m just nominated. He resigned and I had to ask myself, “Am I going to go in?” Mind you, I wasn’t in the Criminal Division. We did have a Criminal Civil Rights section, but I wasn’t doing criminal work all day. Did I want to be associated with that?
That was hard. I decided to go, in part because the president had so much trouble filling the position, and he had more than one stumble in the space of civil rights. You remember, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” (Editor’s note: “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was the official USA policy on military service of non-heterosexual people, enacted during the Clinton administration. The policy was issued under Department of Defense Directive 1304.26 on December 21, 1993, and was in effect from February 28, 1994, until September 20, 2011. The policy prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants, while simulataneously banning openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service.) We got a lot of good work done, but that was hard. I was very plain, including in my confirmation hearings that I did not agree with the death penalty, but I understood my job and the oath. I could do the job.
What helped you make that decision?
As I said, I wanted the division to be back in the civil rights business. I wanted an active civil rights agenda. The president wanted that too and had a history of that. He had made that campaign promise. It’s pretty exciting to be in that job with an administration that was interested in that work. I had a fantastic boss in the Attorney General, Janet Reno, who was very comfortable with a direct relationship and communication between her subcabinet officer and the president as long as I kept her in the loop (Editor’s note: Janet Wood Reno was an American lawyer and public official who served as the 78th United States attorney general. Reno held the position from 1993 to 2001, making her the second-longest serving attorney general, behind only William Wirt. A member of the Democratic Party, she was the first woman to hold that post). I tried to weigh all those choices. I did leave after the first term. That was enough. It was a pretty demanding job, but there was, as they say, hair on that decision.
Talking about another civil rights Icon that we both love, respect, and admire, Nelson Mandela, I know that you made your first trip to the African continent in 1978 after you finished your BA degree at Harvard. I also know you were involved in drafting some of the Employment Equity Bill and the new Constitution of South Africa which has been globally acclaimed and held up as a shining light in many ways. Can you share with us what took you to South Africa? How did you get engaged in writing this legislation, this bill, and this constitution? Why was that so important to you?
When the new government came into power in South Africa, the whole world was watching. One person described it, “If anyone was entitled to their rage, it was Black South Africans.” Think about how the decades of imprisonment but still the moral clarity and grace. He made it possible for people to imagine that you could move from a mountain of despair, to a stone of hope, as Dr. King would say.
There was so much enthusiasm around the world. There was, in particular, a bilateral agreement between South Africa and the United States to help in a variety of specific ways. One of the ways was by helping draft the Constitution and specific legislation. I was the delegate of the Justice Department sent to help with those things. You go into these conference rooms and they’re experts from all over the world.
As I said, everybody wanted to help, and the incoming government took advantage of all of that goodwill and drew experts from around the world. It was humbling to be in those rooms as people were working through how to build a democratic mindset and a democratic habit of mind. Also, I think so clearly about keeping in the forefront the cultural dimension and sensitivity and the differences in experience.
In other words, not only taking phrases or clauses from the United States or some other place and plugging them in because they sounded right but how to think through what they meant in a place where, unlike the United States, Black people were in the majority where there was that level of opportunity gap over that long a period of time. History’s complicated, people are complicated, and South Africa is complicated, but the other thing you got at the time was when I was there on those first couple of visits, which were official in nature, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was underway.
With the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
With whom I met. I didn’t get to meet Madiba (Mandela), but I did get to meet the Archbishop. The importance of recording those stories in real-time, unvarnished, and the criticality of that history being conspicuous so that the legend wouldn’t overtake reality. There is this term restorative justice that you see and acknowledge the sinner where and as you can. Because they acknowledge the sin, you forgive it. It’s a notion right out of my own faith tradition. It was so moving and you could feel it in the work that was much more mundane when I was there, but it was in the air.
What did you feel?
It felt like an extraordinarily hopeful time. For anyone who doubted or anyone who was wanting to believe that the goodness in people could be summoned and put to work building a new nation or building a better life, to have been in South Africa at that time with that leadership and see that leadership emulated by ordinary people in the community was a powerful lesson in what the best leadership can do.
It’s remarkable. Following question from that, do you think Mandela’s leadership is relevant in the world now, and if so, why?
(Mandela’s) Leadership is always relevant. I will say that idealists, most especially in the generation coming up now, often confuse cynicism with sophistication. Cynicism is protection. It’s a way of taking setbacks and routinizing them or normalizing them. I don’t think that’s leadership. As corny and naive as it sounds, all the names you’ll be called, people are hungry for a horizon that is brighter for their reach to exceed their grasp and to be encouraged to look up rather than down.Cynicism is not sophistication. Click To Tweet
I’m not only talking again about leaders of masses of people. I’m talking about the example and the tone we set in our interactions with other people. I am very clear-eyed. I’m not naive. I’ve had lots of encounters with outright evil. I’ve seen that, but they don’t overtake, overcome, or even outnumber the acts of grace and kindness that I have experienced. If you put that out there, it comes right back in multiples.
To your point, ordinary citizens took on that type of leadership. It imbued and inspired the nation. It also inspired many people around the globe. I was curious to know at that time, and I know you met the Great Arch, as we love to call him, but not Madiba. Is there a particular moment during your time in South Africa apart from the TRC, or was it a moment with the TRC that became a ‘Mandela Moment’ for you, a moment that his quality of leadership inspired, shaped, or influenced the way you think, act, and lead now?
I will go back before my time in South Africa, if I may. After I finished my undergraduate work, I had an opportunity through a Rockefeller Fellowship to spend a year on the continent, most of that time in Sudan. I was intending to work on a UN project. Ultimately, I did but, when I got to Khartoum after hitchhiking from Cairo, and I’d never traveled outside the United States before, I learned when I found the office of the fellow I had been writing to for many months that he had left the week before for two years in Long Beach, California, and said nothing to my office about my coming.
Eventually, I talked my way onto the project. To get rid of me, they sent me to Darfur, which was another 600 miles across the Nubian Desert out by the Libyan border, an area that was in crisis now but was quite calm and just remote then. The only way to get there was on the top of a market lorry with enough food and water for a five-day trek.
On the second day out, there was a freak rainstorm. The truck went into a skid and flipped over. All the cargo and the dozen or so of us riding on top of it were spread out all over the sand. A couple of people had broken bones. There are no sirens. There’s no one to call. We looked out for each other and comforted each other for the day or so it took before another lorry was coming that way, and then took us, the people who were hurt, and me as the visitor to the next village where we waited a little while longer and a couple of days longer. A lorry going back toward Khartoum took us again, the people who were hurt and me because I was the visitor.
I didn’t have a title. I had the most rudimentary Arabic. The people who looked after us had nothing, but they were generous with what they had, and they were generous in their care, curiosity, and kindness. What I mean by the leadership of regular people is that they had a lasting impact on the kind of person I wanted to be and the kind of person I’m trying to be. I have had more experiences of that kind because I’ve been alert to it in part that I can count. They come back.
I’ll give you one example. When I was in the office, we were trying to do some sentencing reform. This was sometime before it caught on as a movement in the States, but we got some done. We had some points we were pushing in our bill, but as we were out and around talking with people and trying to stay proximate to the people we served, the thing that I kept hearing about was a relatively modest reform that had to do with the ability of the formerly incarcerated being able to get work once they were out and the ways in which their criminal records followed them around to the point where they couldn’t even get interviews.
There was a modest reform called “Ban the Box,” which was being floated around and we included that in our legislation. (Editor’s note: “Ban the Box” policies arose from the belief that employers should first consider a candidate’s qualifications and abilities, without the bias and stigma of an arrest conviction or record. Several policies removed these arrest history questions from job applications and delayed these background checks until later in the hiring process. Source: NCSL). We were one of the first states to do so. We went out to sign the bill in Roxbury, a Black neighborhood in Boston at a place called Freedom House, which had a big hall with three times the number of people in it who should have been. The fire department was about to close it down. It was jammed. There was no air conditioning, and it was probably the hottest day in the history of time.
The state police were a little nervous about my going into this raucous crowd. They were so excited. They were carving away from me to get to the little table to sign the bill and make a few remarks, and then we’re trying to work our way out, but there’s such jubilation. It was so beautiful. This guy handed me a phone, his cell phone, and he said, “Governor, talk to my friend.” I took the phone as I was trying to get through the crowd, and the fellow on the other end of the phone said, “Governor, thanks for signing this bill. I know it’s going to make a difference for me.”
I said, “I hope you make the most of it.” I handed the phone back to this fellow. It was four years later we were in the Western part of the state going to an event. We got there a little early, and we stopped in at a new-ish restaurant downtown to get takeout for lunch. We ordered and we were standing at the hostess station in front waiting for the food. This guy in chef’s togs walks up and he does a double take.
He said, “Are you Governor Patrick?” I said, “Yes. Do you remember signing that bill a few years ago?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “Do you remember talking to a guy on a cell phone that day?” “As a matter of fact, yes.” He said, “I was that guy.” I said, “Excuse me.” He said, “I took that phone call in jail.” I said, “Really?” He said, “I got out and got a job because of that bill.” He said, “I’m the executive chef of this restaurant now. I want to thank you.” I have two big state police with me. They start crying. I start crying. There were more of those kinds of encounters. When people ask me what I feel most proud of when they ask me about our accomplishments as governor, they expect me to rattle off some piece of legislation or something like that.
We didn’t get everything right, but we have lots to be proud of. It’s hard to describe the impact, the fuel, and the affirmation of the way people express being seen and heard. That’s a form of kindness that is important for leadership. I experienced what was not special, other than just being the outsider, and then I was in that little camp somewhere in the Nubian Desert waiting for some way to get back to Khartoum (in Sudan) and start all over again.
I’m curious. In terms of that experience in the Nubian Desert and also that life-changing phone call as governor for the individual on the other side of the phone, in what sense has that been a ‘Mandela Moment’ for you?
I didn’t know him, but from the outside looking in and reading about him and watching him, there’s a way in which this notion of servant leadership never left him, that it was not about him, that he could be imprisoned for as long as he was, and still be thinking about the people whose own freedom needed to be won. A way of keeping the needs and aspirations of the people he led primary and not his own personal needs, prestige, and importance central, there’s humility in that to be sure but there’s power in that for a leader. That’s what I saw, and that’s what I love and admire.
That’s what you experienced in those two environments as well. There are many examples of that with Madiba and your point about that being the example of servant leadership and the power in touching lives, but also, the greater power of how it brings people together because of the multiplier effect of that. That’s remarkable. Shifting to a couple of fun facts, I recall reading the fact that your wonderful mother, Emily Mae, while you were on that sojourn in Africa, sent you a letter, “I’ve saved up some money, and I’m arriving for Christmas.” There were no flight details and you arrived at an airport in Nairobi waiting. You waited for 36 hours waiting for the right aeroplane to land. It was for Christmas. What was the most memorable part of that Christmas with your mother in Nairobi, Kenya?
First of all, the fact she showed up at all, and we found each other because I had been away from access to mail for months. I happened to get back to Khartoum a few days before Christmas, and there was her letter. Cell phones weren’t (yet) invented. It was difficult to make a phone call and too expensive for that matter, and I couldn’t have written back in time. She had had no response from me. She got on the plane ‘blind.’ As you said, I didn’t know what plane or what airline. She said what day she was traveling, but her arrival was the day after that because of the length of time.
I think she flew through Stockholm or something like that and changed planes there somewhere. Seeing her finally come out of the arrivals area and baggage claim because ‘I had happy thoughts and evil thoughts’ about this after waiting all this time while in the airport. I hadn’t had anything to eat. Finally, she came out and I burst into tears. She said, “I wasn’t sure I was going to see you.”
We had a remarkable time. We went up Mount Kenya together. She was a lifelong smoker so she didn’t make it quite the whole way, but that was an extraordinary experience. We spent New Year’s Eve down at the coast in Mombasa, which was fun. We had so many laughs. It was an extraordinary adventure for both of us and an expression of so many things. It was her sense of adventure and her love for me. That was a long time ago, but it was quite a scene.
It was quite a journey. A very bold, audacious, and pioneering mother you have. The second fun fact, I know at some point, you applied to business. You applied to different sectors, but you also applied to a seminary. I was curious to know what drew you to the seminary. What made you decide not to go there?
This was coming at the end of my undergraduate years. I am most interested in law school, but not ready. I thought about business because I’d met a bunch of business people and they seemed to have interesting lives and real leadership opportunities. I thought about and applied to seminary because I am a person of faith. I felt that the kind of impact that I wanted to have would be most familiar in that setting, which is to say the notion of inviting people, challenging people to bring their best selves, to overcome their fears, and to turn to each other rather than on each other.
They were lessons I craved in the public sector but that I got in church more often than not. My best friend’s dad is a minister and he had been encouraging me as well. I said, “I don’t know how you come up with a sermon every week.” It occurs to me, “Maybe I’d have something to say every six months or so.” That had a lot to do with it. There were other things I wanted in life as well, and I thought I might be able to get them through other ways.
The third fun fact, I know that you’ve had a very high-profile public life. Often, there are things that people still don’t know about you despite the public scrutiny. One of the things that not a lot of people know about you is that you’re a beekeeper. You’ve taken care of four beehives over the years. You like the honey and you like the fact that they pollinate. It also slows you down in life. I was curious to know. What is another unknown fact about you or a little-known fact about you?
I like to horseback ride. I don’t know that many people know that about me. I don’t get to do it very often. I love the animals. They’re big and powerful. They’re incredibly sensitive to mood and attitude. They’re extraordinary animals. I remember I had one of the most exciting rides in South Africa. It was North of Durban at a horse farm, where at that time they used to breed Lipizzaners. Do you know that breed?
Yes, I did.
I remember early one morning, we only stayed there overnight. I was visiting a friend’s research spots. He was doing research on AIDS. Early one morning, we saddled up before sunrise and rode up into the hills on these extraordinary horses. I think about it to this day. It was magic. My form’s not pretty, but I can stay on.
Where did you learn to ride horses?
I’ve always been interested in the public park, not far from our house. They had trails. On the other side of Hyde Park where the University of Chicago is, was a fairly fancy neighborhood. There were stables at that time along the park where folks who lived in Hyde Park would keep their horses. This is a long time ago. You’d see folks out early in the morning when it was still cool riding on the trails. I always thought, “Those were amazing.” You could have a trail ride. They’d walk you.
When I was at Milton, there were stables maybe a couple of miles walk from the school. I had a paper route, and I would use my money on Sundays to go and take trail rides. I did that every week for years. I got more confident and more comfortable, at a point, before insurance concerns kicked in. One of the stable owners would let me take a pony out into the woods and right on my own. It was fun.
By the way, Durban (in Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa) is where I grew up. In fact, there was another place close to Durban called Shongweni where they had the big polo riders and international polo matches. That area was well-known for horse riding. What a gift that you did this in Milton and this again outside Durban. That’s wonderful. Shifting back to the future of leadership, what are your thoughts on the future of leadership? What would you say to our young future leaders who are up and coming?
There are versions of what we’ve talked about. Try to avoid the temptation of celebrity alone. Have a reason. Have a why, and serve that why and the people who are served by that why. Also, think not just about your generation but about generations to come. The other thing that is hard, not notwithstanding or maybe because of the marvelous impatience and militants in some ways of the younger generation, is no one person and no one party has a corner on all the best ideas.Try to avoid the temptation of celebrity alone. Have a reason to be leader. Click To Tweet
The notion of listening hard to someone who may disagree, trying to lead, not just those who already agree, but those who don’t, is critical because, at one level or another, so many people now are feeling unseen and unheard. They don’t need to agree with everything that leads in on the business side or the political side. They don’t need to, and they don’t want to agree with everything. You have to agree on everything before you can work together on anything. They only want to be acknowledged for their own life experience that has led them to their views. It has to happen on the way to persuade people to come and work alongside you.You don’t have to agree on everything before you can work together on anything. Click To Tweet
Would you ever run for president again?
People say ‘never say never’ and I keep my options open, but as I said, it is so much harder to get a politics of unity heard in an environment that’s all about sensationalism and division. My guess is it will be up to others, but I’ll do what I can to encourage them.
In our final few moments, Governor, given that we have the USA 2024 elections coming up, is there anything else that you would say to the candidates who have put their hat into the ring or will still put their hat into the ring on either side of the aisle that’s any different to what you’ve already said. Is there anything else you would say to candidates on both sides of the aisle in the run-up to the 2024 elections?
It’s a version of what I’ve said already, Anne. Their candidacy and their service are not about them. It’s about all of us. I’m not interested in a president who’s interested only in being president of his party or of those who agree with him. I’m interested in a president who’s interested in being president of the United States and speaking to and working for all of us everywhere.
On that note, Governor, thank you so much. Thank you for your excellent work. It’s always a joy to connect with you. I’m so looking forward to doing more with you in this initiative and this movement. Thank you for your amazing, excellent work, your wisdom, and for the kind, compassionate person that you are.
I hope to become the man you described. Thank you so much, Anne. It’s great to be with you.
As we reflect upon the compelling leadership insights from former presidential candidate and the first Black governor of the State of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, I’m left pondering his big question. Why is it harder to hear, and sell, a message of unity in the United States and in many parts of the world now in this age of sensationalism and celebrities? What happened in the United States of America that was once the Global Gold Standard for Democracy? Why would the USA now not respond well to a message of unity?
What fuels the war more than what motivates unity and peace? When could or would a message of unity pierce the stubborn veil of anger, division, and manmade hate?
It took me back to the violence on the streets in apartheid in South Africa. Years of brutal oppression, murders, and assassinations. During that time, my MBA professor, Professor Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, or ‘Van,’ as we like to call him, was a well-known political analyst, businessman, and politician. He is best known for being the leader of the official opposition to the Apartheid Nationalist Government and leading party called the Progressive Federal Party (PFP).
He taught us a class during our MBA called ‘The Environment of Business,’ where we learned about the political wars, the culture, and the social wars that were impacting the country. He spoke about The Hockey Stick syndrome. When a nation or an organization is at war on a slippery slope downward, it is like a hockey stick. The real questions are, “How long is the stick? When do we get to the bottom before the stick starts to turn and bend upwards? What is the tipping point that leads to that stick bending upwards as it curves?”
The length of the stick defines how long we live in trauma and pain. Firstly, it’s fueled by ego, fear, or by the desire to win at all costs. It’s a zero-sum game. Secondly, people will fight and continue to fight as long as they think there is some possibility of winning at all costs with little or no thought about the long-term consequences and the costs, not only to others but to themselves. Thirdly, the greater the threat and the higher the stakes, the more people gravitate towards the easy, quick fix.
We scramble to the polls to elect those people into power who create this sensationalism, this drama, rather than deliver substance who tell us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear (listen to). Perhaps we can gain some timeless wisdom from a great Russian novelist and writer, Leo Tolstoy, who wrote the masterpiece War and Peace. What did Tolstoy teach us?
Firstly, there’s the burden of war. Secondly, the folly of pride. Pride often costs us dearly. Thirdly, the duality of human nature, on the one hand, is driven by ego and a struggle for identity. On the other hand, there is a timeless quest for meaning in life, harmony, and happiness. Finally, he taught us that nothing is permanent and nothing is constant. The penultimate question and opportunity to bend the hockey stick upwards is, do we lead the change with thoughtful, bold action, or does the change forcibly lead us? Until next time, take care and take thoughtful, bold action.
- A Better Chance
- Governor Deval Patrick
- Center for Public Leadership
- War and Peace
About Governor Deval Patrick
Mr. Patrick is Co-Director of the Center for Public Leadership and a professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also a Senior Advisor to Bain Capital and former co-chair of American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, a progressive political action committee. He is the founder and, from April 2015 to December 2019, was Managing Partner of Bain Capital Double Impact, a growth equity fund that invests in commercial businesses for both competitive financial returns and positive social impact.
From January 2007 to January 2015, he served as Governor of Massachusetts. He has been a senior executive in two Fortune 50 companies, a partner in two Boston law firms, and by appointment of President Bill Clinton, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the United States Justice Department. He is a Rockefeller Fellow, a Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, and the author of two books. Mr. Patrick earned his AB cum laude from Harvard College and his JD from Harvard Law School.