Dean Elmendorf, Fellow Alumni
It would be an understatement to say that I am honored today to receive the 2016 HKS Alumni Public Service Award. I am moved, not only by the consideration of my peers to recognize the work that I have done under the leadership of our fellow alumnae, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; but by their close attention to our work over the last eight years.
I did not do it alone. The knowledge that you were watching and rooting for me has played no small role in my success. It has strengthened and challenged me to be and to do my very best; to keep asking what I can do; and to remember why I am here - which is to make a difference.
I will always owe a debt of gratitude to God, who has kept me safe in the face of many perils; has equipped me with the faith to face every challenge; and has given me the wisdom to sail through turbulent waters successfully.
As I transition from being a Minister of Finance and Development Planning of a developing country to being the Manager of the World Bank Global Center for Fragility, Conflict, Violence and Forced Displacement (FCV) providing support to the Bank operations in 43 countries, I take with me the wealth of experience that have humbled me, deepened my faith in God, and strengthened my resolve to do my part to make the world a better place.
Having seen the world and been educated in the best schools here in the United States, it is easy and common to arrive at Roberts International Airport, just outside the capital, thinking you have the solutions packed away in your suitcase. We all do. And then we show up for work and realize that our stellar education has equipped us for the work, but that it takes time and effort to contextualize it and make what we learned in the classroom work for us in the field, especially tough terrains.
This is a humbling experience for anyone. At least, it was for me. But, then again, I was used to that, because when I arrived at the Kennedy School of Government, I thought I knew it all and full of confidence. But the privilege of learning from world class professors and with students from all seven continents afforded me a much needed shift in perspective and equipped me with the tools I needed to serve my country and my continent effectively. I can tell you that, although I took a lot of quantitative courses to deepen my understanding of economic and development policies, I still do not have all of the answers. I just know which strategies worked for Liberia, which didn’t, and that my time at KSG prepared me to meet each challenge with the tools in hand to overcome it.
But, let’s face it, in a highly political environment, technical competency can quickly become irrelevant, if not paired with the acumen to build coalitions, manage egos, and provide the leadership to turn a vision into reality. This is where the leadership course by Professor Dean Williams and my service in the HKS student government came in, putting me through the powerful personal transformation I needed in order to be as effective a leader as I could.
It was not easy. In a chaotic development setting where crisis mode is a comfort zone for many, it took courage and tenacity to – and again, a great deal of humility – to turn noes into yeses; to shift perspectives away from obstacles, toward opportunities; and to usher in a culture of proactivity and accountability.
That work is not yet done, but I can say with all confidence that the team that I have been blessed to work with over the last ten years is well able to see it through.
To me, that is the most important part of leadership – the durability of the impact that we make, which is measured by the quality of the team we leave behind, and by what happens when we finally leave the stage and relinquish control. And that is the power of the Kennedy School – its ability to impart to its students the spirit of John F. Kennedy so that, when we leave the splendid campus right up the Charles River on JFK Street, we walk out into the world asking what we can do and remembering why we are here. And we move forward our respective journeys, procreating in others the same service-oriented spirit that will eventually gain critical mass and effect the change we want to see in the world.
I want to thank my family who have so graciously chosen to ask the fundamental questions with me: what can we do, and why are we here? They have sacrificed the security and comfort of my presence so that I could go and serve our country. They have allowed me to miss out on their childhood in order to coordinate the development interventions that will transform the lives of millions of their peers who also grew up without a father, in the midst of conflict and economic collapse. I want to also thank my siblings for their love and support
I want to thank my President, who has been my mentor and who believed in me when many others doubted; to my colleagues in the Cabinet whose dynamism and commitment to public service made my time in Government productive; the staff at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning. We made a good team, and I am honored to have been a part of their lives and their work.
Last but not least, I want to thank my beloved Liberian people for their cooperation, their resilience, and the hard work they have done to transform their own lives and the lives of their children. They are my inspiration, and the reason that I wake up at 2am every morning. This award is for them!
Finally, I want to thank the HKS Alumni Board for selecting me from among a competitive pool of well deserving candidates.
I am deeply honored, to be counted among the distinguished alumni of the Kennedy School of Government, and I am confident that this distinguished tradition of public servants will remain at the cutting edge of its field, continue to groom the men and women to become today’s leaders and tomorrow’s heroes.
Thank you and God bless you all.