Steven Beshear, the 61st Governor of Kentucky, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on March 29, 2017 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

Daring to Fail: Steven Beshear on Leadership

By Junaid Nabi

One hundred and seven years ago, on a sunny April afternoon, Theodore Roosevelt delivered his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech before a roaring crowd in Paris, France. Half a century later, this speech, which touched upon the importance of human and property rights and the responsibilities of citizenship, inspired a young lawyer in Kentucky who dreamed of leading his people towards a better and brighter future. This is the story of Steven Beshear, former Governor of Kentucky and current Menschel Senior Fellow, who joined the Voices in Leadership program on March 29, 2017 at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Watch “Daring to Fail: A Conversation with Steven Beshear,” a session from the Voices in Leadership series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Governor Beshear has been in politics since 1973, acting as Kentucky’s Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor and ultimately serving as the 61st governor of Kentucky from 2007 to 2015. As governor, Beshear expanded the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, launching the Kentucky Health Benefit Exchange helping over 500,000 Kentuckians. For the first time in history, almost every Kentuckian had access to affordable healthcare; this success earned him a special commendation from former President Barack Obama during the 2014 State of the Union address on the merits of implementing “Obamacare”. Governor Beshear provided valuable lessons and insights to help students understand the role state governments play in the implementation of healthcare legislation and how leadership is exercised in uncertain times.

Governor Beshear started the conversation with what he believes is vital to leadership,

“To me, one of the main traits you got to have to be a leader is daring to fail.”

He reflected on his defeat for the race of Governor at the age of 43, when he was a rising political star in Kentucky. In those moments of frustration, Governor Beshear came across the quotation from Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Citizenship in a Republic’ speech, “It’s not the critic who counts. It’s the person that’s actually in the arena and whose face is covered by blood, sweat, and dust. And who is striving valiantly. And if in the end he succeeds, at most he gets the triumph of high achievement. But if he fails, he at least fails while daring greatly.”

Steven Beshear, right, the 61st Governor of Kentucky, sat down with Dr. John McDonough, left, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on March 29, 2017, as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School.)

Often, this willingness to fail, to fight for what is right irrespective of the result may seem counter-productive; however, as Harvard Business Review would corroborate, this courage to take risks has been demonstrated to be an essential skill in leadership. When paired with careful deliberation and preparation, this boldness can often inspire followers, and result in transformational change. And this is what happened in Kentucky. After the state implemented the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in October, 2013, the uninsured rate plummeted from 20.4% in 2013 to 7.8% in 2016, as reported by the recent Gallup polls.

This boldness, Governor Beshear prompted the audience, must be coupled with thoughtful consideration of policy implications and robust preparation,

“Leadership equation has two parts: first one, willing to take a risk; and second part, be able to take a good decision, and turn it into a reality.”

In essence, the execution is almost as important as the preparation. In expanding the health coverage for the uninsured in his state, Governor Beshear did not take the easy route of executing a complex policy without engaging the stakeholders: for preparation, he approached PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to compile projections of ACA implementation on state budget, and for execution, he reminded his fellow state legislators, “that they were Kentuckians first, and Democrats and Republicans second.” Governor Beshear emphasized,

“Understanding who you are, and how you exercise power, and a willingness to do what it takes within the parameters of your ethical standards, is a key part of being a leader.”

Steven Beshear, right, the 61st Governor of Kentucky, answered questions from Harvard Chan student Dr. Chloe Slocum, left, on March 29, 2017, as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School.)

Governor Beshear is also a man of stories. While on the surface, it may seem a part of his political oratory skills, it is important to understand why he uses this tool copiously. According to Harvard Kennedy School Professor, Marshall Ganz, stories are the medium by which humans connect, and it is usually through stories leaders can influence people around them. At a recent public health leadership seminar at Harvard Chan School, Ganz recognized public narrative and the ‘power of stories’ as a key component of effective leadership. During the Voices discussion, Governor Beshear stressed on this trait, “We weren’t communicating to those folks in a way that they felt like we cared about them,” and underlined the importance of being able to communicate vision clearly and persuasively.

Distilling his experience as a successful state executive, Governor Beshear reminded public health students in the audience,

“Do not dream small; leaders are not those who are sitting on the sidelines, who know neither success nor failure.”

Governor Beshear encouraged them to play a proactive role in helping the vulnerable access healthcare, because glory belongs to those who fight for what is right, to those who enter the arena.

Story by Junaid Nabi, a physician who is interested in global health systems and surgical care accessibility and is pursuing a Master of Public Health in Global Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a first year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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Voices in Leadership

Voices in Leadership

Voices in Leadership webcast series enhances leadership, connecting high-profile leaders with the Harvard School of Public Health community. hsph.me/voices