Wendy R. Sherman

Next month, former U.S. Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman will assume her role as the director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, succeeding David Gergen.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

A new chief at Center for Public Leadership

long read

Former diplomat Wendy R. Sherman talks global concerns, Harvard hopes

What does it take to be a successful leader on the world stage? Ask former U.S. Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, and she’ll tell you it requires many skills and qualities, but above all courage and persistence, and, for women especially, embracing your own power.

Sherman did all that and more during her four decades in public service. Trained as a social worker, Sherman created a remarkable career in U.S. politics and international diplomacy. She went from being chief of staff for the trailblazing Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) to counseling U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, with whom she worked on the first major nuclear missile talks with North Korea in 1999‒2000, and finally, as the first female undersecretary of state for political affairs, she led the U.S. negotiations into the milestone multilateral accord over Iran’s nuclear arms program in 2015.

Now retired from the State Department, Sherman will join the Harvard Kennedy School faculty in January as a professor of the practice of public leadership and will become director of the School’s Center for Public Leadership (CPL). She also will maintain her ongoing affiliation with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

In an interview, Sherman, who will succeed longtime CPL Director David Gergen, spoke with the Gazette about present U.S. foreign policy, her vision for the center, and her wishes for every young person.


Wendy R. Sherman

GAZETTE: You’ve had a front-row seat for so long, and now you’re seeing things from the outside looking in. Where is U.S. foreign policy right now, in your view?

sherman: I think we’re in a really tough place, for two reasons. One, the president, for whatever reason, has really devalued diplomacy. He allowed then-Secretary Rex Tillerson basically to take apart the State Department. Sixty percent of the senior foreign service officers are gone; the incoming classes aren’t as large. There aren’t ambassadors named to important posts all around the world, and we’re two years into the administration. So it is very concerning because if you devalue diplomacy, then the chances that you’re going to default to war increase, and that is not a good answer to most things. Diplomacy is very effective when there’s a credible threat of force, but you want the use of force to be the very, very, very last resort, not the first, second, or even third resort.

Secondly, the president doesn’t believe in alliances. He believes in operating bilaterally with everyone. It really belies reality, even for him, because let’s take the case of North Korea, where he wants to exert maximum pressure while he does try to engage in some diplomacy. That maximum pressure requires other countries to cooperate, so we can’t do it alone. When the president decries NATO, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that the European Union, the World Trade Organization, groups that are important to maintaining the world order, really aren’t very effective, he’s undermining our alliances and our relationships.

None of these institutions are perfect. Our institutions aren’t perfect. Yes, they need to be reformed, and, yes, they need to come into force for the modern 21st century. But we do our best when we work and play well with others. The world relies on our leadership. Other nations are willing to do their share, and, yes, we should press them to do their share, but the China example is a very good one. If we were working with our European allies and getting China to play by fairer rules for competition, I think we’d be in a much stronger place.

GAZETTE: Has the U.S. diminished or lost the trust and moral authority to remain a leader on the global stage as a result of the trajectory we’ve been on in the last couple of years?

sherman: With the trajectory we’re on, we certainly have. Because of some recent events, we have essentially said to some autocratic leaders around the world that they can act with impunity. By that, I mean, when Russian leader Vladimir Putin allegedly poisons opponents who are outside of Russia, when the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, either implicitly or explicitly, allegedly orders the murder of a journalist who’s a permanent resident in the United States and we do nothing or very little, then we say that “anything goes.”

The threat to journalism and to a free press in particular is of enormous concern because a free press is one of the guardrails that one has in a democracy, and we have to do everything we can to preserve it. I think we can hold onto that moral authority. It’s both poignant, sad, and quite a commentary that Americans have felt the values of our democracy and the strength of our system in the funerals that we’ve witnessed of late. [New Yorker staff writer] Susan Glasser [’90] said it the best: that we look for optimism in the funerals of George H.W. Bush and John McCain that spoke to the values of leadership that are so part and parcel of what our country should be about.

GAZETTE: On Saudi Arabia, what response, if any, should the U.S. have to Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, and does the rise of the crown prince there pose a threat to U.S. and global stability?

sherman: Yes, I think it’s of great concern. We need a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia. They are an important pillar in the Middle East, they have been partners in a lot of what we have done, they are leaders in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf Coordinating Council. But we cannot stand for what has occurred. There are a variety of things we can do. Sanctions, of course, some of which are being applied. Use our leverage to end the Yemen war, which is a humanitarian disaster. Perhaps think about sending a delegation, quietly, to visit the king of Saudi Arabia because even though he has given a lot of authority to his son, the crown prince, the king is still the king. And to say, “You’ve got to do something about this situation.” We can’t decide for another country who their leader is, but we can exert pressure, we can set out standards.

We should look at the arms sales we’re making to Saudi Arabia. Maybe there are defensive weapons that should continue to be sold, but offensive weapons? For what purpose? To conduct a brutal war in Yemen? I don’t think so. So I think there are a number of things we can do and should do and should be doing now. I think the Congress is poised to take some action. They’re in a lame-duck session now, so I’m not sure they’ll be able to pull it off before this Congress is over and the new one comes in, but there’s certainly a lot of energy behind doing something.

GAZETTE: If you were still at State, what global conflicts or challenges would you likely be spending most of your time on right now?

sherman: Part of the problem is you don’t get to choose. Events happen, and you have to deal: You both get to set priorities and you have to respond to what’s happening. We need to deal with the issues in the Middle East. We need to end the war in Yemen. We need to get back to the agreement with Iran so they can’t obtain a nuclear weapon, and we have the time and the space to work on their malign behavior in the Middle East. We have to have a strategy for China and a strategy for Russia because they are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and they are important world powers — not of the same variety, but they’re very crucial to the future.

We also have to set priorities for the future that seem to be gone, climate being front and center. We really have to take action, and that’s not on the president’s agenda. We have to pay more attention not only to cyber norms but to artificial intelligence. I don’t think any government has a policy in place that deals with the impact of artificial intelligence, and the anxiety that some Americans feel because they feel like they’ve gotten left out of trade and technology is going to get larger with artificial intelligence. We need to plan ahead, we need to have a safety net for people who will be displaced by those technological changes. All of that is interconnected in the world and affects our ability to deal with conflicts, in case of climate, water shortages, all the things that often do lead us to war.

GAZETTE: Next semester, you’ll take over the Center for Public Leadership from longtime Director David Gergen. What will be some of your early priorities and initiatives?

sherman: First of all, I’m just thrilled. I’m not really taking over for David Gergen, I’m succeeding him. He is going to, I hope, continue to be a force here at the Center for Public Leadership. He’s really a gift to the nation in what he’s done here and what he continues to do.

I can’t think of a time when public leadership has been more important than it is today, and that’s leadership in government at all levels, that’s leadership in civil society, leadership in business. A lot of people believe leadership can’t be taught, that you are born a leader or you’re not. And I don’t agree with that. I think there’s a skill set, there are a set of values that come with being a strong and effective leader.

I’m going to learn a lot when I come, I don’t come with tons of preconceived notions about what we can do, I want to build on the fellowships that have been created here. The Center for Public Leadership is very student-facing, which is terribly important. That’s the purpose of our being here. But I do want to engage the faculty more. I think it’s time to make sure that there is a core set of faculty who are committed to the concepts of leadership, to social innovation, and to really thinking about governance and how we move forward. So I hope to bring practitioners and academics together so each can learn from the other and we can strengthen our ability to solve some terrific challenges that are ahead of us.

GAZETTE: You’ve had the benefit of working for and alongside some remarkably accomplished women — former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary General of the European Union diplomatic corps Helga Schmid, among others — and learned from their examples. Is there still a different set of standards that women leaders have to live up to, and, if so, what do you advise younger women, and what about younger men? Will CPL teach men how to support and promote women in leadership roles?

sherman: Yes, yes, yes, is the simple answer. Certainly, there is a double standard. That’s getting better as more women come into the fold. I just walked over here with Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), a new member of Congress, and the number of women who have been elected is just fantastic. It will make a difference because we do better when there’s a support system, when you’re not all by yourself.

But there’s no question that all of the things that we talk about all of the time — if women are assertive, they’re seen as tough and ambitious; if men are assertive, they’re seen as strong and powerful — I think any woman in any field knows those rules still exist today. … Women need to really step up and support each other and have each other’s backs, and your point about making sure that men are sensitive to that, and that we all are sensitive to issues of diversity, whether that is color, immigration status, or religion. We all need to be conscious of what we understand and what we don’t, and to really listen and hear other people and their points of view.

GAZETTE: You counsel young people to embrace what you call the “unexpected life.” What do you mean?

sherman: The reason I say I wish everyone an unexpected life is because that’s what I’ve had, and it has given me extraordinary opportunities, things I never would have imagined I would do. My training is as a social worker, as a community organizer and a clinician. I only half joke that my clinical skills are very useful with dictators and members of Congress. [Laughs.] But my organizing skills I’ve used in child welfare, I’ve used in politics, and I’ve used in national security, foreign policy, and negotiating.

I urge every young person to get a set of core skills and then just start doing anything. Your first job is probably not going to be what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, so get some experience, make use of those skills. Take risks. Be open to opportunities. I had gotten a call right before Bill Clinton became president, and I was asked to go see Secretary of State Warren Christopher. At the time, I was a partner at a Democratic media consulting firm. I couldn’t imagine why Warren Christopher wanted to see me. So I went and saw him, and the upshot of it all is I became assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the State Department, and I’ve done national security and foreign policy ever since in both the public sector and in the private sector. So take risks, because you’ll have the most amazing experiences.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.