Guided By A Mission: Learning to Lead with Baroness Tessa Jowell
By Chloe Slocum
In times of uncertainty, a sense of mission drives leaders to weather conflict and remain true to their goals and principles. Baroness Tessa Jowell held several positions in government as a Member of British Parliament from 1992–2015, including serving as Minister of State for Public Health, Minister of State for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities, and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and member of the Cabinet. Joining the Voices in Leadership Series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on December 2nd, 2016 for an in-depth conversation, Baroness Jowell shared her reflections on mission-driven leadership and her experiences during a dynamic and exemplary career in public service and public health.
Prior to becoming a Member of Parliament, Baroness Jowell’s career included experience in public service as a mental health practitioner, senior manager, public service reform expert, and social policy analyst. Throughout her career, Baroness Jowell has focused on promoting public health and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, including immigrants, the elderly, and mothers and children living in poverty. She famously spearheaded and organized the winning bid for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics and led project development for the initiative for eight years. Baroness Jowell currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Ministerial Leadership in Health Program, a joint initiative of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Graduate School of Education. As Baroness Jowell recalled leadership lessons learned over her storied career and various policy endeavors, she shared several keys to mission-driven leadership with her audience.
Connect with those you serve
Baroness Jowell underlined the critical importance of connecting with communities and constituents on a human level during her early career and contemporary humanitarian efforts with immigrant populations in the United Kingdom and Western Europe to identify the “unrealized potential” of service programs. She underscored that understanding the real needs of families and communities depends on actual time spent meeting the people served by policy initiatives and in conversations with constituents that inform policy perspectives for decision-makers. Her early work in public health and focus on preventable illnesses were central to her leadership in developing Sure Start, an early childhood program initiative with the National Health Service to create centers where local families with young children receive resources and support to promote healthy child development.
Clarity of purpose
In describing her early days championing Sure Start programs, Baroness Jowell explained, “I don’t want you to get the idea that this is all soft-edged and all conducted in a sort of rosy glow.” She emphasized that leadership rooted in a clear purpose, compassion, and a sense of mission for change is sometimes challenging but ultimately rewarding.
“Mission-led leadership…which combines rigorous design, clarity about purpose, with this sense of internal mission, is, in my view, just about the most uncomfortable and personally demanding form of leadership. But I believe it’s the best and the most effective.”
Despite trends in greater political polarization in the United Kingdom and in the United States, she is still optimistic given the “determination to contribute” by mission-led activists and leaders.
Focus on the human impact of design
In reflecting on her past experience leading policy design, Baroness Jowell asserted that “you’ve got to have the grit under your fingernails” in order to maintain a focus on “the very highest standards of human professional care being delivered” to vulnerable populations. She emphasized common humanity and empathy as core components of policy design, remaking that those crafting policies or services ought to ask themselves, “‘Would I use this? Would my friends use it?’ And if not, it’s not something that you should continue to plan in the way you are.”
Baroness Jowell reminded audience members that clarity of vision and resilience are also critical for leaders who are mission-driven. Reflecting on her leadership and coalition-building for the bid and management of projects related to the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, Baroness Jowell advised future leaders to focus on communicating a clear vision and “build the solidity and solidarity of your team” in pursuit of a common purpose.
“We were clear we wanted to regenerate East London, transform a generation of young people through sport.”
With humor, she also recalled her experiences with critical media coverage during preparations for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics and encouraged future leaders to learn to take responsibility for shortcomings as well as successes, stating “as the leader, [you] have to be the one who is prepared, when necessary, to go out there and take the whacks.” In the end, the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics was a stunning success and the change was transformational.
Story by Chloe Slocum, a physician who is passionate about health quality and equity and is pursuing a Master of Public Health in Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a first year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.