Understanding Leadership: What A Surgeon, A Senator, and the Former President of Mexico Have in Common

Leadership—it’s a buzzword that high school seniors filling out college essays and mid-career professionals applying for their next promotion are both trying to figure out. What exactly makes a good leader? Is it our choices, or the outcomes of those choices, that matter more? While the paths of today’s most admired leaders are multifold, there are important similarities in their approaches to difficult decisions. At the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Voices in Leadership Program hosts leaders in various fields to understand the inflection points of their stories, and the heart behind their choices. Through these narratives, the program has helped Harvard students gain a more nuanced understanding of what makes a great leader. Here are some of the key lessons from the most outstanding speakers:


Having a clear and defined vision for the future was one of the most frequently discussed topics. In talking about the educational centers that he built in Philadelphia, Bill Strickland, the President and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, pointed out the difference between doing something with and without a vision. “I’m not selling programs. I’m selling a way of thinking about life, reflected in programs,” he shared. Drew Altman, CEO of the Kaiser Foundation, similarly admitted that while he is a “deadly-serious manager,” that is not his job—“you are there to lead…to have a vision about the future and your organization.” Many others echoed this theme as well: leaders must have a vision, and must aim to have that vision resonate with their followers.

Chelsea Clinton
Chelsea Clinton


Conviction and resilience were particularly important muscles exercised by many top leaders. President of the University of California, Janet Napolitano shared that “even the thickest of skins can get pierced at times…so you have to have something that causes you to keep the engine running, and I have it. I don’t know how I got it- I have it.” Elizabeth Warren similarly admitted that she was “nothing if not persistent” and that “persistence is a huge part of leadership.” Warren also made clear that leadership is hardly about acknowledgment—having faced much opposition in her career, she opined, “a big part of leadership is the willingness to fight for what you believe in.” Some of our strongest leaders are those who don’t give up or don’t back down when they sense an injustice.

“A big part of leadership is the willingness to fight for what you believe in.” Senator Elizabeth Warren


The importance of friendships and relationships was recurrent as well, and is less mentioned in traditional “leadership” traits. Bill Strickland advised that one of the first aspects of being a good leader was to “develop a deep understanding of human relationships.” Strickland found in his diverse career experiences that he goes from “talking to rich people to poor folks in…seconds” and that one must truly be able to connect despite differences in culture, socioeconomic means, education level, and more. Strickland has built education centers in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and believes that the relationships and environment he has created has driven the success of the programs. “Beautiful environments create beautiful kids. Prisons create prisoners,” he reflected. Gerald Chan, Chairman and CEO of the Morningside Group, held a similar view, coining the idea of “cultural agility” and the need for people to be able to navigate between different cultural expectations and identities quickly for the purposes of connecting with people.

Many speakers also talked about friendship as a key ingredient. Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama, shared that First Lady Michelle Obama makes it a point to “hug and embrace everybody” to put them at ease and feel welcomed while in the White House. Surgeon-writer Atul Gawande, in discussing his famous work on using checklists in operating rooms to improve patient safety, highlighted that to truly scale his approach on a national level, there was a major component of “social networking” and forming friendships that was not possible through solely creating regulations or paying doctors. The best leaders are those who are able to form deep and lasting connections at a very human level.

“[A leader must] develop a deep understanding of human relationships” Bill Strickland


As important as it is to be flexible to new challenges, so too is it to stay true to one’s principles and values. Felipe Calderon, former President of Mexico, felt that “first, public service is about principles and beliefs.” Gerald Chan similarly advised and warned that what is most important is to “never sacrifice your principles…I never had to do that.” In her work, Valerie Jarrett came to the realization that in having to stick steadfast to what she believed in, not everybody would be agreeable. “And it’s okay if everybody doesn’t like you. You want them to respect you.” She similarly lauded the virtue of measuring all actions against a set of values, and for that to be one’s “gut check”. Value-driven action is an important component of being a leader.

Atul Gawande
Atul Gawande


Leadership is often thought of as part teachable, and part gut feeling. This theme emerged several times, with varying views. Drew Altman said that “strategic intuition” played a large part in his directing of Kaiser into the foundation’s current role as a leading news source on health policy. He underlined the importance of having the “courage to at least make [strategic intuition] a part of your decision-making process.” Gerald Chan very astutely pointed out that gut feeling, however, is also a skill that improves with experience and environment. When told by colleagues that one doesn’t need to go to a top academic institution to learn “gut feeling,” Chan responded that doing so will “actually improve your gut feeling.” Thus, for many, leadership requires the skill of listening to ones visceral senses.

“And it’s okay if everybody doesn’t like you. You want them to respect you.” Valerie Jarrett


Inspiration and hope were driving forces for a number of leaders that we hosted. Bill Strickland said that, more important than resumes or intelligence, he looks for “hope in the people I’m working with…at the end of the day, I’m looking for people who are excited about living…that’s a feeling.” Chelsea Clinton, during charity work she was doing in Buenos Aires donating shoes to children in rural areas, distinctly remembers the feeling that she shared with the community as they ran toward a truck full of donated shoes. “I understood that they were not just happy because of the shoes, but happy about what the shoes represented. And that was that someone believed in them.” While leaders are often confronted with unimaginable obstacles, hope is a consistent driving force for many of them.


One might look at the careers of those at the top of their fields and be surprised to know how much failure played a role in shaping their success. Dr. Gawande, on writing: “I was forced to revise. I never revised anything. I had to learn how to really revise.” Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, the Minister of Health for Kenya, saw the country through many health challenges. He learned that it is important that we “don’t feel too bad when [we] fail.” Senator Warren told stories of persistence in getting placed on the committees that she most wanted when she had just entered the Senate. Despite Senate Majority Leader Reid telling her it wouldn’t happen, she was persistent and eventually was placed exactly in those same committees. While we are often presented with the successes of leadership, those are often built on a number of previous failures that we don’t hear about.

“...don’t feel too bad when [we] fail.” Peter AnyangNyong’o, Kenyan Minister of Health


While failure is important, failure without reflection can be largely detrimental. Thus, to little surprise, thoughtfulness and reflection could not be overstated in many of the careers of those who we featured. Lawrence Summers, President Emeritus of Harvard, recalled working with Robert Rubin, Secretary of the Treasury under the Clinton Administration. Summers recounted that unless you had three reasons not to do something, and could counter all of them with why you should do it, Rubin would not let you off the hook. To him, this was the sign that you “thought about this pretty carefully.” Chelsea Clinton found feedback and reflection indispensable in her own life. She mentioned that it was important for her to become “comfortable asking for feedback” from those who were senior to her to help her improve. Atul Gawande had similarly asked other surgeons to observe him in the operating room when he felt that his skills had reached a plateau and weren’t improving further. Most leaders were reflective and understood themselves well enough to know when to ask for help so that they could continue improving.

Bill Strickland
Bill Strickland


There was also a striking level of serendipity in most people’s paths—the journey to becoming a leader was never planned as it turned out. Take, for instance, Dr. Gawande, now a famous endocrine surgeon and physician-writer. Gawande studied politics and philosophy at Oxford, thinking at one point he would pursue a PhD in philosophy. “My worst grades in college were in writing,” he shared as he reflected on how much his path had shifted over his career. However, the shift in careers came from a sense of openness for opportunity. “I just said yes to everything,” Gawande admitted. Senator Warren had been married at age 19, and never intended on graduating from college—she only did so to earn a teaching diploma, so that she could pursue her first passion of becoming a teacher. However, as opportunities arose, Warren approached them head on: “[When you] see that door open a crack in public service, you run as hard and as fast as you can at it.” Valerie Jarrett urged that we avoid depending too heavily on plans because opportunities “never knock at the most opportune moments…it’s usually the least opportune moment.” Jonathan Woodson, the United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health, emphasized that more important than hoping for luck was being prepared for it. “One day, you’ll get tapped on the shoulder. And the question is, will you be ready for that?” Many of the top leaders did not worry too much about their future paths, instead being ready for what was next.

“One day, you’ll get tapped on the shoulder. And the question is, will you be ready for that?” Jonathan Woodson, United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health

Leadership is not about the titles we hold, or the abilities that we possess as much as it is about the choices we make in times of challenge. Our greatest leaders did not always see themselves in the light that they currently occupy, but showed courage, hope, and love in a number of endeavors along the way. The qualities that were most often espoused among the most renowned leaders of our world perhaps come with little surprise, but what is interesting is how closely these overlapped despite the vast differences in the fields within which these people have excelled. Leadership doesn’t have a formula, but it shares certain fundamental and yet continuously evolving traits that come to define those leaders. We can certainly all aspire to these.

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