Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Counselor of the Department of State and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Kent Dayton / Harvard Chan School)

Leading with Purpose: Lessons from an Unexpected Life with Ambassador Wendy Sherman

By Deepa Manjanatha

“You know, I tell students that I wish them what I have had, which is an unexpected life. I think it’s the best sort of kind of opportunities that one gets.”

Ambassador Wendy Sherman began her time in the Voices in Leadership studio on Wednesday, October 30, 2019 with these words of encouragement to aspiring leaders in the audience. In our time with her, she walked us through the experiences that have shaped her approach to leadership and problem-solving, the driving motivation that has pushed her to work on challenging problems with no clear solutions, and what gives her hope in the face of an uncertain future. In sharing wisdom she has collected along the way, it remained clear that her experiences were driven by her tightly held passion to continually push to make our world a better place. In a time when it can feel impossible to make change, Ambassador Sherman’s words served as a reminder that optimism is always an option and that when there is a will, there is a way.

Integrity and Courage are Essential for Good Leadership

The greatest mentors I had…were my parents… To do the right thing usually will come at a cost. But if it is the right thing, it is worth doing.

From a very young age, it was clear to Ambassador Sherman that doing the right thing required integrity and courage; an example that was demonstrated by her parents. As her greatest mentors, they showed her that sacrifice is often necessary to fight for what is right and that courage is essential for leadership. Her parents’ strong convictions and commitment to seeing their visions to fruition established a powerful example of the hard work and drive that is necessary to create change. When her parents first married, her dad was wounded in the Marine Corps during WWII. He returned to the West coast of the U.S. for treatment, and in this time, he and her mother cultivated very strong feelings about the war: they wanted it to end. This drive helped them develop what eventually became the American Veterans Committee, and they also attended the founding conference of the United Nations with the aim to prevent a war like WWII from ever happening.

This was only the beginning of her knowing that “having a public purpose was important.”As an adolescent, Ambassador Sherman watched her parents continue to be courageous leaders in their community. Her family’s Rabbi (Morris Lieberman) had been arrested for trying to integrate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park just outside of Baltimore, believing he shared responsibility in stopping the degradation of and discrimination against Black Americans. Ambassador Sherman’s father, who worked in residential real estate, was moved by the Rabbi’s efforts and action and asked him how he could help. To that, the Rabbi responded: “You are more powerful than any priest or rabbi or minister; you could sell houses to anybody who wants them!” Her father knew that if he did that, he would be run out of town, but after some discussion, her parents decided to do just that. Within six months, her father’s listings dropped by 60%, and by the end of that decade, he had to close his business. Their family moved to a smaller house and were threatened by their neighbors, but her parents never regretted doing what they thought was right.

Teamwork is the Key to Success

Ambassador Sherman explained that the key to successfully making change is rooted in teamwork and that building a supportive team of experts is essential for getting the job done well. In her various roles, having a strong team was always a critical piece of the puzzle, and the time and energy she invested in building a trusting environment always paid off:

“No one of us, even if we are the leader, ever gets the job done without a really fantastic team. I could not have survived in that job without a team of really terrific experts. And secondly, nowhere have I worked that I have not built a support team for myself. And certainly as the first Director who didn’t know what she was doing, having that support team…”

One of her first significant experiences with team building happened at the age of 30, when she became the first Director of Child Welfare in Maryland. Humbly, she commented that she could not have done what she did without the support of a brilliant team, who not only aided with her work, but also formed a tight community with each other as they navigated the public health child welfare crises. Ambassador Sherman explained:

“Child welfare is a public health crisis in this country. Particularly our foster care system, our system for child abuse and neglect, still remains a tremendous challenge. We don’t have all the resources we need, we don’t have the attention of legislators, we don’t have the attention of the public. And children don’t have a voice in our electoral system, so they depend on us to try to make sure that their needs are taken care of, and that’s something that we all have to dedicate ourselves to every single day.”

Her lesson on the importance of developing a strong team and network of support is especially relevant when addressing issues as pressing and heart-tugging as child welfare. Ambassador Sherman’s guidance is an important reminder to public health professionals, to engage in healthy practices and seek out support systems.

Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Counselor of the Department of State and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School (Right), was interviewed by Dr. Meredith Rosenthal, C. Boyden Gray Professor of Health Economics and Policy in the Department of Health Policy and Management (Left) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (Photo by Kent Dayton / Harvard Chan School)

Still a Long Way to Go

Ambassador Sherman’s work supporting “first” women in several roles reinforced her awareness that there is still much work to be done in changing norms and breaking boundaries set for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in particular and for women generally. Despite all the progress that has been made, she reminded us that there is still a lack of racial and ethnic diversity representing the full spectrum of people who live in the United States, particularly in positions of power, such as professors, CEOs, or public officials.

Supporting the sentiments expressed by Ambassador Sherman in the Voices in Leadership Studio, there is ample evidence suggesting that lack of diversity is driven by persistent forms of institutional sexism and racism in U.S. society. Breaking this down requires recognition of the problem and work on the individual and societal levels to foster more equitable societies. Furthermore, sexism cannot be fully eliminated without ending racism, as the two are deeply intertwined.

Traditionally, women have not run for political office in the U.S. at the same rates as men, but there was a noticeable shift in 2016, not only in the U.S., but across the world. Ambassador Sherman’s work with EMILY’s List, an American political action committee that aims to help elect pro-choice Democratic female candidates to office, was when she first saw this shift. After the Women’s March in 2017, over 30,000 women wanted to run for office, a drastic increase considering that historically, only about 1,000 women approach EMILY’s List each year. However, this was only the beginning. Ambassador Sherman opined:

“We have attitudes in our country that we have to change, our own, about how we see people different from us and how we have to believe that hearing their voices are important for our society to really prosper. And I think for women, in particular, it’s very hard for them to win executive positions. We don’t have women in corporate CEO positions. And to a great extent, people don’t see women as holding that kind of power. Women have to get comfortable with exercising power. We often think of it as icky, and it’s not. It’s quite important, particularly when you use power to do good, of course, to have purpose in that power. But we still have a lot of barriers and obstacles here, and we all need a lot of discussion with each other to break down those barriers and open opportunity.”

Navigating Tough Negotiations and Power Dynamics

Perhaps some of the most unique insights Ambassador Sherman shared revolved around lessons learned through her negotiation work while serving as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the Obama administration. She explained that negotiations are a “very complex, time consuming process” and also require teamwork. For example, she had a trusting relationship with her Chief of Staff, who stayed with her for 4 years and could do everything better than she could. Choosing the right people for a team requires putting “an enormous value in not only the right people in the right place having the right objective, [but also in] thinking through your strategy, [and] taking the time to do all of the footwork you need to do.”

Her notes on negotiation revolved around the requirement of preparation. One must take the time to do all the footwork and research they need to do outside of the negotiation room (which she covers in detail in the course she is currently teaching at the Harvard Kennedy School: “Away From The Table: Everything You Really Need to Know to Get the Job Done”). She stressed that if one has not done all of the work beforehand, conversations in the room will not run smoothly. This means one needs to show up with an understanding of the history, culture, norms, power dynamics, policy, and tools at his/her disposal.

Another insight Ambassador Sherman learned from her former boss, dear friend, and business partner in the Albright Stonebridge group, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was about navigating power dynamics and personal identity when approaching these international negotiations. She explained that we all have roles, and these roles come with power and responsibility. Recognizing, understanding, and embracing this power and its limitations is so important for being effective as a negotiator, but also applicable more broadly to leadership. A balance must be struck between individual identity and the greater purpose, especially when negotiating on behalf of a nation! Especially poignant was Ambassador Sherman’s advice to stay humble, get ready, and prepare to learn a lot while engaged in this process.

Ambassador Sherman laid out her strategy for taking on high-stakes negotiations while balancing the power dynamics at play:

  1. Be very clear about your objectives
  2. Figure out what it means to achieve your objective and ask yourself: How do you show or prove that? What are your sub-objectives?

3. Ensure that you have: a good team, supporters, and consultation.

Student Moderator Jacob Patrini, Master of Public Health candidate (Left) leading an off-the-record Q&A session with Ambassador Wendy Sherman (Right) after the talk. (Photo by Kent Dayton / Harvard Chan School)

The Importance of Public Leadership

Given her success navigating a long list of challenging and pressing problems, whether it be her work in Maryland as the Director of Child Welfare, her time as the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the Obama administration, or anything in between or beyond, it is far from surprising that Ambassador Sherman had so many rich lessons on leadership to share. Emphasizing the value of living a life filled with unexpected twists and turns, she explained that these experiences have taught her valuable lessons on leadership and have equipped her with the tools necessary to take on any problem.

Ambassador Sherman shifted the discussion from these stories and lessons from her past to an exploration of why public leadership is so important for the future. She explained that her choice to work with the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School was not expected. She was approached with the opportunity and felt it was the right decision, given the rapidly changing world and the growing anxieties about the future of people around the globe. Whether it be concern about jobs, rapid change in the social sphere, technology/artificial intelligence, healthcare, and education costs rising, change is happening quickly and it seems to be unsettling people. She shared:

In that uncertainty and anxiety, people are turning to autocrats. Strong men, often, who can say ‘I’ll take care of you. Give up a few of your civil liberties in the process, but I’ll take care of you.’ And so I thought it was important that we challenge the students who are going to be our leaders in the future to get the skills they need to be the authentic leaders that we need — principled, effective — to…know the scholarship and the history around what makes great leaders and who those role models are, to know the issues going into the future so they can embrace them and bring about the change that we all want for a secure, prosperous, principled future.”

Public leadership may be a chaotic path to take on, especially now, and when asked why anyone should enter this realm, Ambassador Sherman genuinely responded:

“We need you. We need you really badly… We need our best, our most talented, to challenge the leaders who are there…there are a set of values that here in the United States we believe in under our constitution, and we need to train to hold on to those values here and the values of every other nation state’s belief in what they need to do to ensure they have a strong future.”

And though her plea does not go unnoticed (94 percent of surveyed millennials in America having expressed their interest in using their skills to benefit a social cause), studies have shown that young people are reluctant to enter public service and government roles because of their doubt that these paths will actually lead to the social impact they are looking to make and because of antiquated technology and practices. Not only that, the path of public leadership can certainly feel daunting and hopeless, given the lack of control young people today feel over their lives and planet in the midst of climate change.

However, in teaching students to be the leaders that the world needs, Ambassador Sherman highlighted that her students are a source of hope and illuminate the bright and resilient future ahead. Though the path to get there will be long and challenging, Ambassador Sherman is optimistic that it is a journey worth braving.

Story written by Deepa Manjanatha, a Master of Public Health candidate in Social and Behavioral Science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Born and raised in Arkansas, Deepa received her Bachelor’s degree in Economics at the University of California- Berkeley, where her understanding of structural and systemic violence in the health system was established and she became interested in policy research and implementation. Her research interests revolve around sexual and reproductive health and justice.

Story edited by Sherine Andreine Powerful, MPH, a second-year Doctor of Public Health student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A Diasporic Jamaican, she received her Bachelor’s degree in Latin American and International Studies from Yale University and holds a Master of Public Health degree in Population and Family Health, with a concentration in Global Health, from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Her interests, centered around the English-speaking Caribbean, include feminist global health and development leadership; gender and sexual health, equity, and justice; and pleasure, healing, and liberation.



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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.