Leadership Lessons: Senator for a Day

I was a United States Senator for a day at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute Senate Simulation. I even had the name placard to prove it: “Senator Gabe Gladstein, Democrat from North Dakota.” Almost 100 other students, Harvard Kennedy School graduate students and other Harvard undergrads, played roles as other Senators in the simulation. Our task: debate two pieces of realistic legislation, amend them as best we could, and pass them on the Senate floor. The proposed laws focused on two topics straight from current events: a bill to reform federal prison sentencing and the other to address refugees from Iraq and Syria coming into the U.S.

At the end of the session, Professor Steve Jarding of the Kennedy School spoke to us on the Senate floor about leadership. He told us that we were the leaders of the future. “The dragons in the room won’t be slain unless you stand up and become a leader,” he said. Jarding spoke of “the daunting responsibility that comes with leadership, not politics,” and affirmed, “Leaders have to understand that their responsibilities are greater than the ideology of politics.”

Similar refrains have been common throughout my time at Harvard. I doubt there are many students here who have not been told at some point that they must stand up and be leaders. Far rarer is any discussion of what leadership means. A recent essay in the New Yorker examined this topic in depth, mentioning Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s study of the five character traits most commonly associated with leadership in scholarly literature: “modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and selflessness.” Jarding referenced many of these qualities when he entreated us to be the future leaders who fix our political system. And I think most Harvard students would agree that we would like to see these qualities in our leaders.

So how do we rationalize who we want our leaders to be with today’s partisan divisions? Even in our Senate simulation, only 15 or so of the almost 100 students participating had a chance to speak on the Senate floor. Many of the contributors were those with the most partisan viewpoints and loudest voices. We were lucky that other students were willing to work and vote quietly and diligently without pontificating; otherwise we may not have passed even one of our two bills. This is a conundrum: Harvard wishes to build leaders who embody ideal traits, while its students often aspire to hold positions of power which appear to require precisely the opposite traits.

The Senate simulation showed me that being the loudest voice in the room is a trade-off. I spoke with some student senators whose opinions would have greatly contributed to the conversation at large, but they wished to remain quiet while others with more extreme opinions occupied the pulpit. Yet some of us were able to make important, non-partisan points by being some of the few to speak up. How do we convince the moderates and the compromisers that their work can truly create progress in our government and society? How can Harvard, or any university, endow students with the ambition to become leaders and with the selflessness to lead? I don’t have an answer, but perhaps future Senate simulations can continue to enlighten Harvard students as to the value of that model.