Faculty leaders have a city-centric vision


Whether working with immigrant entrepreneurs struggling with licensing paperwork, helping disabled residents who fell through the cracks of the healthcare system, or assisting other “victims of dysfunctional bureaucracy,” Jorrit de Jong spent the first decade of his career tackling the “red tape” that threatened to impede city government performance.

As the faculty director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, De Jong, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, remains committed to this goal.

Through the Initiative, he now helps cities rethink how their bureaucracies operate and helps them work to improve social outcomes, beginning with mayoral leadership.

Each year for four years, the programming will center on executive education: classes that offer mayors and senior city leaders a chance to think critically about how to build effective teams, utilize data, connect with citizens to provide better services, collaborate across sectors, innovate, and drive performance.

De Jong’s partner in this part of the Initiative is Rawi Abdelal, the Bloomberg Harvard co-chair of executive education. Abdelal has worked at Harvard Business School for nearly 20 years, and has taught leadership skills and management practices to business executives as well as full-time MBA students.

Abdelal and De Jong share a passion for teaching practitioners – as Abdelal calls them, “people of action and practice.”

Abdelal has worked with thousands of them – startup employees, global business executives – but never with city leaders.

Working with the Initiative, Abdelal says, “has been a genuinely exhilarating process of learning how visionary these city leaders are, and how committed to their communities.”

Because De Jong spent time earlier in his career working with government leaders and their employees, he has a tremendous amount of respect and sympathy for what city leaders take on.

“There’s no job like mayor,” De Jong says. “It’s really hard to prep for the job, so there’s a lot of on-the-job learning, but then the work is so time-consuming that you don’t really have time to reflect on what you’re learning.”

The best mayors, he thinks, find ways to mobilize resources and problem-solving capacity within their city organizations and across sectoral boundaries. He is interested in the conditions under which city leaders and their teams succeed in doing that.

“The role of academia and science,” De Jong says, “is to pay close attention to problems and solutions in the real world, study these rigorously, and add value to society by helping practitioners diagnose their challenges and find solutions.”

The research and curriculum development of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative convenes faculty from across Harvard with this goal.

All of the Initiative’s research is informed by challenges in practice, and the results will find their way back to city leaders through executive education.

The Initiative focuses not just on mayors, but also on chiefs of staff, deputy mayors, senior advisers, and other leadership positions in city hall. As De Jong learned early in his career as an action researcher diagnosing and remedying red tape, leadership “from top to bottom” is necessary to bring about organizational change and to work together to help citizens.

De Jong, who has been involved with the Initiative since its beginning, credits Bloomberg Philanthropies founder Michael Bloomberg, who also served as mayor of New York City for 12 years, as the “father” of the Initiative.

Bloomberg felt “there wasn’t the kind of opportunity for city leaders that business leaders have,” de Jong says. “The original thought behind the Initiative was to fill that gap, and Mike Bloomberg laid out the vision and put the people and resources behind it to make it happen.”

Before the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, Abdelal believes there were very few opportunities for public officials to access the “lifelong learning” executive education provides in the private sector.

Abdelal joined the Initiative leadership team because he wanted to help change this.

It is the public sector that has the largest direct impact, in many ways, on citizens’ day-to-day lives, Abdelal says. “It is city government that is consistently about vision, and competence, and pragmatism.”

Helping the leaders of these governments, he adds, is now the most meaningful part of his professional life.

De Jong and Abdelal have a compelling vision of success for the program. They aim to inspire leaders from 240 cities, and equip them with ideas, tools and skills needed to lead innovative organizations and improve life for citizens.

They also picture a growing field of practice and study around the subject of city leadership. De Jong says the Initiative’s research and curricular material development will “fill gaps in what we know about city leadership and city government,” and “creates an appetite to know even more.”

He hopes to get Harvard Business School and Kennedy School students “excited about city government,” in the hopes of “inspiring and training a new generation of city leaders.”

Abdelal and de Jong agree that it’s crucial to “help the city leaders to imagine, develop, and impart leadership practices and new organizational practices,” de Jong says. “If we do that, even the tiniest bit, we’ll be successful.”