Leadership requires vision. The idea itself is not new, but as circumstances change, so, too, does the vision required. Former Delaware Governor Jack Markell summed up this idea in a recent visit to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It is very important that everybody who’s in an executive leadership position in government have a very clear view of how the world around us is changing,” he said. Markell and Gina McCarthy, the director of Harvard C-CHANGE, joined students and faculty in the Voices in Leadership studio on March 5, 2019, for a lively conversation on improving public health through public service and leadership.
Markell took an unconventional path to his two terms as governor of Delaware (2009–2017). A native of the state, Markell earned his undergraduate degree in economics and development studies at Brown University and completed an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago. He stayed in Chicago to work in banking and then in communications. Beginning in 1998, Markell was elected to three consecutive terms as the treasurer of Delaware before becoming the governor in 2009. These experiences gave Markell the preparation he needed to lead his state from the financial collapse of the late 2000s to economic recovery today.
Markell’s approach to public service and leadership draws upon his years of experience in the private sector. Even as he illustrated his idea that leadership requires having a perspective on how the world is changing, Markell highlighted his own need to have a perspective on how globalization and automation would specifically affect the people of Delaware.
Markell’s accomplishments as governor in the area of public health are notable. In 2010, Delaware won President Obama’s “Race to the Top” competition for investment in education, and in 2016 the National Association of the Board of Education named Markell “Policy Leader of the Year”. As McCarthy noted, what is especially unique about Markell is how his vision of leadership includes seeing many of today’s public health concerns as economic opportunities.
In 2014, Markell and Mark Edwards of Upstream USA rolled out Contraceptive Access Now, a plan to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies in Delaware. Markell shared that, in 2011, at 57 percent, Delaware’s rate of unintended pregnancies was significantly higher than the national average of 45 percent.
The majority of unintended pregnancies in the United States end in unintended births, which for many people can mean dropping out of school or the workforce. This, in turn, results in lost personal and societal opportunities. Unintended pregnancies can also mean additional healthcare costs, as the parents and babies are less likely to receive prenatal care and more likely to require interventions in the neonatal period and beyond. Markell argued that there are real human and societal costs of not supporting women in the timing of their own pregnancies. He maintained that: “the most important thing we [can] do to help all people achieve their potential [is] really to empower women to have their babies when they [are] ready for them.”