Rosen Plevneliev, Former President of the Republic of Bulgaria 2012–2017 and Distinguished Professor of the Emerging Markets Institute, Beijing Normal University and Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Bryan Buckley / Harvard Chan School)

Wisdom Versus Strength: Setting Leadership Priorities with Rosen Plevneliev, Former President of Bulgaria

By Katie Klatt

It was during unprecedented times that Rosen Plevneliev, former President of Bulgaria, spoke to a socially-distanced audience — fewer audience members were admitted, chairs were spaced out, and a sense of foreboding hung in the air. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the rest of the United States, and the entire world were scrambling to adjust to the new way of life brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

Plevneliev’s ability to function and thrive in a crisis was not lost on the day he arrived in the Voices in Leadership studio. The audience could tell as soon as he walked into the room. With an infectious smile, he waved and said hello to every person present. He used elbow-bumping to greet everyone he passed, since the ubiquitous hand-shaking greetings were discouraged as a public health precaution. His reassuring presence was enough to allow one to imagine how effective he would be at maintaining calm and stability during a time of civil unrest.

Notably, Plevneliev is no stranger to crisis. Plevneliev was only the fourth democratically elected President of Bulgaria, from 2012 to 2017. Communist power reigned in Bulgaria until 1989 — still well within recent memory. The population was divided; some generations remembered the communist days fondly, while other people wished for even further societal reform. Corruption, often in the form of organized crime, had led to downstream effects of widespread poverty and low living standards for many. During Plevneliev’s first year as president, large-scale protests and unrest broke out against the Socialist-led cabinet, eventually leading to the resignation of the prime minister and many government officials. As Plevneliev described, he was left totally alone in the midst of a crisis. In order to move Bulgaria through the high-pressure situation, Plevneliev had to be creative in a time of uncertainty. He chose to gather trusted officials to form a coalition government, saying: “let’s make a kind of coalition government, a caretaker government to bring everybody who can contribute to stability and development together”.

In this challenging instance, Plevneliev directly confronted the problem by bringing people together to highlight corruption and poverty. This allowed them to work towards solutions to these widespread grievances. He shared the advice he used to encourage this collaboration to confront the issues: “You need to be capable of not hiding the problems, but pointing. If you want to solve a problem, you point at the problem. And that’s the only way to solve it”.

In our current lived reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, that advice especially rings true. So far, the United States has failed in the pandemic response, both in the government’s hesitance to 1) acknowledge the severity of the problem and 2) act decisively in the early stages. In a politically divided climate like the U.S., Plevneliev’s guidance has proved difficult to follow.

Building Trust Through Transparency

One of the immediate challenges Plevneliev faced during his presidency was gaining the trust of the Bulgarian people during unrest. He knew that trust is fragile — difficult to earn and easily broken. What made him a trusted and beloved president was his unconventional focus on transparency as a politician; he listed his forty promises on his website that anyone could check, track, or monitor. He remained open to being questioned and held accountable for what he promised. Reflecting on this, Plevneliev mused: “Am I, let’s say, forgetting what I promised? Am I not delivering on my promises? That is bringing trust. And trust is a very fragile, but probably the most important asset you can have”.

That trust was laid on a foundation of transparency from the start. Plevneliev came from what he considered “hard work and an ordinary upbringing”. He was very open about this and shared that he did not plan on becoming president, but was open-minded and looking for an opportunity to serve.

For someone who never anticipated serving as a president, he certainly played a crucial part in cementing Bulgaria’s role on the world stage by bringing it into a new age of collaboration with other countries. Bulgaria was admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004 and joined the European Union in 2007. Fresh into those new relationships, Plevneliev’s charge was to nurture these ties and expand Bulgaria’s worldwide collaboration. He played an active role in the United Nations, signing the Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

For someone with no lifelong quest to achieve power, Plevneliev was quite influential. It is a refreshing change of pace to see a leader who is not power-hungry work for the good of the people. There is wisdom in Plevneliev’s unplanned style of leadership.

Rosen Plevneliev, Former President of the Republic of Bulgaria 2012–2017 and Distinguished Professor of the Emerging Markets Institute, Beijing Normal University and Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University (Right), was interviewed by Dr. Rifat Atun, Professor of Global Health Systems at Harvard University and the Faculty Chair for the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program (Left), at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (Photo by Bryan Buckley / Harvard Chan School)

Furthering the Unity of Diversity

Plevneliev’s unconventional transparency meant that even his process of setting priorities was in full view. He encouraged the audience to:

“Have priorities that make sense so that society and people can see a hope, a horizon, and make progress. Work hard on those priorities, bring results, and collect wisdom with strength, but not just strength, which to me, is not sustainable in the long-term.”

And what was his priority? Plevneliev was adamant on re-focusing attention on collective success, rather than individual leadership accomplishments. He believes that:

“A wise leader is one that understands that success is [a] collective effort. The success of a president is not his rating, is not his wars, his battles, is not his enemies. The success of a president is the success of ordinary people. If there is a progress in society, if ordinary people can see a hope, better life, more education, that’s a success for a wise leader.”

This focus on ordinary people guided Plevneliev throughout his presidency. He celebrated the diversity of his nation, while using that as a driver to come together — as he put it — toward the “unity of diversity”. Plevneliev alluded to a mindset shift of leadership, one in which the president must set an example of solidarity, rather than polarization, for the people. Plevneliev was guided by his belief that:

“The president is a head of state and represents the country. It is expected that the president is a moral compass. The president is understanding that in a democratic country, it’s normal to have a kind of fight between different ideas, different priorities. But it is expected that the president is representing the unity of the diversity of the nation.”

As Plevneliev saw it, success of the president is the success of ordinary people. And who better than Bulgarians themselves to provide those solutions? Plevneliev invited protesters, political leaders, and society leaders together to form a citizens’ debate to work on various societal issues together. Rather than otherizing dissenters as a “convenient enemy” during times of civil unrest, Plevneliev opted towards inclusivity:

“But the most important thing, really, when you talk about those difficult moments, it’s really very important for all of us to understand that it was [an] inclusive effort. It was having the right project, having solutions to the problems we face, and knowing that everyone can contribute. It depends on everyone to bring a solution, to improve our democracy, to improve our institutions.”

The Difference between Strength and Wisdom

One thing you notice right away about Plevneliev is that he is not afraid of the truth or of speaking his mind. Accordingly, Plevneliev did not shy away from acknowledging that in today’s world, there is a stark void of inclusiveness. Rather than being guided by wisdom, leaders are using strength to push ideals, which in Plevneliev’s mind, is the wrong approach. He asserted:

“If you have the right plan and the right approach, you will succeed, definitely. You could be [a] genius and have the right plan. But if you don’t have the right approach, you’re not going to succeed. The right approach is to be inclusive, like success is collective effort. It’s not just the approach.”

In his view, many current politicians do not understand this in their constant quest for re-election and high ratings. Plevneliev strove to rise above this all-too-common goal of political success, admitting that “Generally, I was looking for wisdom… because strength…is something temporary”. The legacy Plevneliev wants to leave, ultimately, is one of inclusiveness, which follows the path of wisdom. Then, strength can come with wisdom, by building up those around you. He shared: “the strength could only be a symbol of success, building up education, institutions, society; making your people free; making your people more educated and prosperous. That’s a success, and that’s a strength that comes with wisdom”.

Student Moderator Siobhan “Chevy” Lazenby, Master of Public Health student (Left), leading an off-the-record Q&A session with Rosen Plevneliev (Right) after the talk. (Photo by Bryan Buckley / Harvard Chan School)

Plevneliev’s Legacy: Setting an Example of Solidarity

Plevneliev still believes there is hope to be had, giving advice that can be used by a wide range of people. Those who are pursuing influential positions should look to leaders they consider to be wise — Plevneliev is a good starting point. And he counsels those who already hold influential positions to share what they have learned with the next generation. Early career professionals should collect wisdom along the way; Plevneliev certainly did as he looked to world leaders such as Angela Merckel and Barack Obama for lessons in consistency and poise. Look to wise leaders and follow their lead in finding the right time to use strength.

But how to be wise, and how to know a wise cause? Take a page out of Plevneliev’s book and foster inclusivity. This goal of inclusivity now reaches beyond those years in the presidency. He acknowledged that the next generation are the ones who face the real results, ten to twenty years later, and that history is not made with just a high rating or a strong arm. To him, “whatever you do at the end is only measured by sustainability, which is linked to wisdom, not strength”. The next leaders, then, need to be wise. According to Plevneliev, that means being prepared to build unity.

For the U.S. based audience members, this really hit home, for the current partisan divisions are worrisome, to say the least. Plevneliev hinted that the country may be close to losing unity — if it has not already — warning that sometimes “you need to lose what you have before you appreciate it”. Sharing further, he explained:

“But the point is that whatever the name of the next U.S. president is going to be after Trump, the very first thing he has to do is to start to reconcile, build up, bring your nation together. It’s so divided. And bring people in their diversity… unity, to represent what the American dream is… all about. And it’s not what is transmitted today… the success of a leader is only based by progress in society and the progress on the planet.”

In a world that is now ravaged by a silent and deadly virus, we cannot forget this lesson of inclusivity. We can only get through this in solidarity. This virus is not fought with the strength of an individual or the strength of a nation. It is fought every day, by every person, who chooses to act for the good of their community, rather than just themselves. And that, without a doubt, is the wisdom Plevneliev encourages us all to employ.

Story written by Katie Klatt, a first-year Master of Public Health in Health Management student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Katie received her Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing from the University of Virginia. She worked as a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit nurse in California and Australia before beginning her MPH studies. Her interests include emergency preparedness and crisis response, health communications, and digital health.

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. hsph.me/voices