U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (on screen) joined former Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria Monday evening to address “Leading When It’s Difficult” as part of the Harvard Dialogues series.

Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Mitt Romney on what really matters

Utah senator, former governor, and successful business leader reflects on global policy, personal values amid challenging times

6 min read

Harvard’s 2024 spring term kicks off with events across the University designed to enhance our ability to engage in respectful and robust debate.

Circumstances shift, priorities change, and money comes and goes. But in a world where even facts seem to be at war with each other, U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney said Monday that a person’s values tend to be constant and ought to be heeded.

“When you go into an enterprise, go into a job, if you start compromising on your values, you’re going to find that maybe you’ll be more successful — I don’t know the answer to that — but I know you’re not going to be as healthy or as happy,” he said.

Romney, who voted to convict former President Donald Trump at both of his Senate impeachment trials, ran unsuccessfully for president in 2012, and who — as a Republican governor — shepherded through Massachusetts’ 2006 universal health care plan, joined former Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria on Monday evening for a discussion on “Leading When It’s Difficult.” The event, held in HBS’ Klarman Hall, was part of a University-wide series of events called “Harvard Dialogues,” which examine how to engage in constructive discussion and debate during difficult times.

The wide-ranging conversation, opened by Business School Dean Srikant Datar, was billed as a “fireside chat.” Romney, 76, discussed both his views on domestic and foreign policy as well as more personal insights gleaned over his decades in business and public service. The first-term Republican senator from Utah, considered one of the dwindling number of moderates in Congress, announced in September that he would not run for re-election this year.

In introducing the event, Nohria cited the current challenges facing global leaders. He cited wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, as well as tensions with China, artificial intelligence, climate change and other global dilemmas, saying the times are the toughest he can recall.

“When you go into an enterprise, go into a job, if you start compromising on your values, you’re going to find that maybe you’ll be more successful … but I know you’re not going to be as healthy or as happy.”

Mitt Romney

“It’s hard to wake up in the morning and feel optimistic about the world,” said Nohria, who acknowledged earlier generations faced even more urgent problems, such as World War II and the Great Depression. “Maybe that is our challenge as leaders of this generation: to meet this moment and find a way of moving forward and to move forward in a manner that people will remember our generation and say that was a great generation.”

Romney, who joined the discussion remotely, urged continued U.S. support for Ukraine, saying that failure there would only embolden Russia and convince our allies that the U.S. can’t be trusted. In Gaza, he said, the situation may seem intractable, but he believes U.S. leadership there remains important, and a Palestinian state may be part of the ultimate resolution.

Relations with China, though difficult, can be managed in collaboration with allies and trading partners so that the Asian giant gives up the “cowboy capitalism” it has engaged in over recent decades and complies with international norms. That will enhance economic relations — even if China remains a competitor — and discourage military adventurism.

Issues like these and others can result in heated debate, particularly amid the deep schisms in the nation. Romney, M.B.A. ’74, J.D. ’75, noted that the free and vigorous exchange of ideas is a necessary part of higher education and life, but said that a line should be drawn once physical violence is threatened.

The two also discussed artificial intelligence, which Romney described as a significant issue for the coming decades. He likened AI’s development to that of the atom bomb and said it will be viewed as “a force in world history.” It’s also ill-suited to regulation by an institution like the Senate, full of politicians with little background in the subject.

He suggested creation of a new federal department staffed by the brightest AI-savvy minds through which the technology’s potential positive impacts — in things like health care and the business world — can be realized while heading off the risk of potential misuse by bad actors, which he said is sizeable.

“We need to be funding the best minds in the private sector, here and around the world, to make sure that we’re building the defensive tools that AI can provide to make sure that it continues to be an asset for the world, and not a danger,” Romney said.

Besides discussing major global issues, Romney also shared some of his own life lessons.

Romney’s time in business centered on Boston-based management consultants Bain & Company, where he served as CEO and whose private equity spinoff, Bain Capital, he established. He recalled a time when Bain’s founder called in a psychologist to work with the company’s staff, which had become “disunited.” The therapist asked them to list five people they admired, write down three qualities they associated with each, and circled the words that appeared most often.

“All of us circled the same things: service, love, honesty,” Romney said. “He said, ‘Those are your core values and if you live consistent with those things, you’ll be more successful, less stressful, and healthier.’ That was an important lesson to me as a young person. I decided my mind can change on issues from time to time because sometimes I’m wrong. I’m not the smartest guy in the room, so I listen to other people, and I can be persuaded that I’m wrong. But my values, I don’t vary from those.”

He urged the audience of several hundred to recognize that though success is often defined in monetary terms, monetary success is very often due to serendipity. But if success is defined not by a job, money, or winning elections but by the quality of one’s relationships with others, life can be successful regardless of one’s bank balance.

Romney acknowledged that there may be times over the course of a career when an action necessary for the success of the company or organization seems at odds with one’s values. Then, he said, you may have to make a difficult decision: leave the company or speak up and move on. In the Senate, Romney said, he votes according to his values and his oath of office.

“You do what you believe is best and honor the promises you’ve made,” he said.