12 Rules of Politics and Public Service

One of the benefits of a Harvard fellowship is the opportunity to reflect upon the higher purposes of our country's civic institutions, and how those who serve within them can make meaningful progress for the American public. In discussions with students, I found that the questions seemed to gravitate towards these 12 rules -- developed based upon my experiences in politics and government.

Twelve Rules of Politics and Public Service

1. Preserve optionality.

2. Don't divide people into "us" and "them." Too many people reflexively divide others based upon artificial divisions; politics isn't a sport, don't treat it like one. Public service is about the future of our country; treat it with the respect it deserves and always remember that many have sacrificed to provide us with the opportunity to govern in this way. Don't waste it by playing games. We are all on the same side of trying to build a better future.

3. Leave it better than what you found. Serving in government is a public trust; if you dirty the office with misdeeds for short-term wins, the dirt stays behind when you go. In those areas you can influence, move the institution forward and leave it in a better place for the next round.

4. You can't control how long your time in power will last. You can control what you do with power while you have it. No matter how much you focus on staying in an influential role, sooner or later, it will end -- most likely at a time not of your choosing. Ultimately, whether you have the ability to shape policy for a day or a decade, make a difference while you can.

5. Nobody is irreplaceable. Politics is riddled with the "career tombstones" of people who thought they were indispensable; from internships to high office, stay humble and focused on the task at hand.

6. Have a deputy and develop a successor. Change takes time; the stability of your efforts will depend on the readiness of others to step into your shoes, when it's time for you to move along.

7. Think ahead. Don't allow a hurried pace to overshadow planning. In politics and government, every day is a crisis to somebody; don't lose sight of your goals and the planning necessary to get there.

8. Every night, ask yourself if you were part of the problem or the solution that day. Any honest political consultant will say that they've given both answers to this question throughout their careers; if you answer negatively too many days in a row, reassess what you're doing.

9. Don't do or say things you wouldn't want to see go viral on social media. Borrowing from an old line about the Washington Post, even the smallest online comment today can become a national news story. We're all human, but just be thoughtful about the impact of what you say, write, and share.

10. Try. Often times, the difference between progress and failure is simply that one tried.

11. Include others - especially those you're not obligated to. You'd be surprised how quickly one can build trust and achieve progress, simply by genuinely involving those who you didn't have to.

12. "The victor shall soon be the vanquished; the vanquished may soon be the victor." Today, it might be your meeting room; tomorrow, it might be theirs - operate honestly and fairly in both situations.

Matt Lira is an Institute of Politics Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has more than a decade of experience in Congressional Leadership and national political campaigns.