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Inaugural Rhodes-Schwarzman Conference on Public Leadership 2018

Inaugural Rhodes-Schwarzman Conference on Public Leadership 2018

The inaugural Rhodes-Schwarzman Conference brought over 150 Rhodes Scholars, Schwarzman Scholars, alumni, and experienced speakers together at Rhodes House to discuss the theme: “Public Leadership in the 21st Century – Ethical, Global, Local and Connected”.

Speakers drew on lessons from their careers and personal lives to provide guidance to younger Rhodes and Schwarzman Scholars on what ethical, global, local, and connected public leadership could look like. The abstract theme was grounded by the diversity of viewpoints and practical experiences presented in each session. We heard from speakers with a broad range of backgrounds who held leadership roles at all levels of government, the judiciary, academia, consulting, the military, religious institutions, investment companies, newspapers, human rights organisations, and more.

A take-away from the conference is that public leadership involves a bundle of behaviours, habits, methods, and strategies for putting into practice a set of personal values. Many of the attendees highlighted that the end-goal of public leadership is to get something done which fulfils these values. Some of the key themes which were echoed across multiple speakers and panels provide a brief template for the practice of public leadership.

Four broad pieces of advice coming out of the conference are for aspiring leaders to:

  1. Cultivate personality traits of ethical leadership

A consistent message was that leaders should spend time in advance mapping out the values which they want to operationalise in a public leadership role. Some of the principles highlighted as core to ethical leadership included humility, curiosity, empathy, and long-term drive. It was said that ethical public leaders ought to spend time cultivating these “eulogy virtues” rather than focusing solely on “resume virtues”. One panellist with a background working on change management in government noted that “you can get anything done if you don’t need to take the credit for it”. Keeping in mind core ethical principles allows public leaders to focus on the issues that they are most passionate about, with the end-goal of getting things done rather than lengthening a resume.

  1. Build an environment for leadership

Multiple speakers highlighted that one of the most important skills and values for public leaders is a commitment to capacity building in others. Leaders in any age or position don’t need to wait to get things done – this type of leadership is a habit rather than a single act. For ethical leaders within institutions, it is important to analyse the ethical requirements of the institution and how these mirror personal values. One panellist cautioned that members of powerful institutions should never “allow prejudice to masquerade as common sense”. Another highlighted the importance of believing in the purpose of your work - where it may be necessary to make tough decisions for the lasting benefit of institutional integrity. It was echoed across panellists that young leaders need to think carefully about the institutions which they join, and whether the leaders of those institutions are implementing a values-based approach.

  1. Identify the problem and how to address it

A panel on “Futurism” discussed the impact of automation on the workforce, the link between technology and economic development, climate change, and emerging technologies. The panel highlighted the importance of being aware of megatrends and big issues which will need to be addressed. However, some speakers also argued that activism around broader issues should take care to leave space for specific immediate initiatives. The dialogue returned to the importance of humility in public leaders and the recognition that these systemic issues are complex problems, which will require complex solutions. A practical exercise on problem-solving by Rob Steiner from the Munk School of Global Affairs had audience members in small groups follow a deep-thinking problem solving process which focused on extensive questioning before providing answers.

  1. ‘Never waste a good crisis’

Many panellists highlighted that leadership is about getting things done. Often this can only be achieved in a crisis scenario, where there is upheaval in the status quo and change can be implemented. Taking advantage of a crisis scenario to enact positive change means remembering the three messages above. To act in the short time-span of a crisis, public leaders need to have mapped out their values, created an environment where problems can be raised and addressed, and identified the specific goals which they want to achieve. Speakers highlighted that at this point, if a crisis arrives a leader will be better prepared to make the tough decisions required to reach a positive outcome.

Many meaningful insights on the panels came about due to the diverse and interdisciplinary expertise of the panellists. One speaker noted that “diversity of thought is not just the diversity that you agree with”. The conference was an incredible opportunity for younger Rhodes and Schwarzman Scholars to engage, challenge, and learn from a broad range of perspectives. It was mentioned on one panel that for achieving results, the only thing more important than passion is persistence. A panel of recent Rhodes and Schwarzman alumni concluded the conference by emphasising that although everyone has different leadership styles, it is always useful to reflect and persist in promoting leadership that is ethical, global, local, and connected.


Jordan Gifford-Moore is a Rhodes Scholar undertaking an MPhil in Law. He previously worked as a banking and finance lawyer on large-scale infrastructure projects and public-private partnerships. His current research looks at the concept of regulatory races to the bottom, where local regulators use law as a product to compete with other jurisdictions. He specifically focuses on the popular narrative of a race to the bottom in artificial intelligence and whether this idea is supported by previous methods of lawmaking regarding corporations, environmental laws, and labour standards.

Twitter: @JGiffordmoore

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The Rhodes Scholar Blog features the excellent research from our Rhodes Scholars and their insights into important topical issues. If you would like to contribute, please contact claire.skilton@rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk