Each now stands astride a world-leading institution. But the paths they started on did not seem to point that way. David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group, was a lawyer, and not a successful one to hear him tell it. Larry Bacow, president of Harvard, spent 21 years focused on researching and teaching at MIT and “studiously avoided any opportunities to be a department chair or dean or anything else.”
When they changed course and embarked down their respective roads to positions of leadership, it was for a chance to make things better. Rubenstein and Bacow spoke at Monday’s virtual forum, “The Leadership Playbook: Insights from Great Leaders,” sponsored by Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) Institute of Politics and Center for Public Leadership. HKS Dean Doug Elmendorf introduced the event, which was moderated by Wendy Sherman, director of the Center for Public Leadership and professor of the practice of public leadership.
“To be a leader, I think you have to be good at something, and to be good at something, you have to really enjoy it,” said Rubenstein, who also serves as a fellow of the Harvard Corporation. “I didn’t enjoy the things I was doing before [the Carlyle Group], certainly not the practice of law, and the practice of law didn’t enjoy me.”
Rubenstein was quick to admit luck, and making your own luck, helps. But to capitalize on what luck comes your way requires focus, vision, humility, communication skills, and exercising your brain, said Rubenstein, whose new book is “How to Lead: Wisdom from the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers.”
“You can’t assume when you graduate from graduate school or college you know everything you need to know. You have to keep reading and reading and reading and exercising your brain so that you have more knowledge and you can keep up with what’s going on,” he said. His final, but perhaps most important attribute: honesty.
Bacow echoed the importance of honesty, integrity, character, and quality of mind. He also added good taste, the power of persuasion, and the importance of being a team player. “As leaders, you need to be able to both assemble a team, but also be part of a team,” Bacow said. “There is no leader who’s not part of a larger team. People who make leadership about themselves as opposed to the organization or the institution long-term, will not succeed.”