Trent Lott, former U.S. Senator for Mississippi, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on October 25, 2016 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

Never Waste a Crisis: Leadership Lessons from Senator Trent Lott

By Junaid Nabi

America is in a crisis. The driver of economic prosperity — the middle-class — is shrinking (as reported by the Pew Research Center), the political platform is increasing polarized, and the nation is divided over the question of how to manage the future of the Affordable Care Act. And yet there is incredible consensus — and bipartisan support — to set a better healthcare policy. More than 70 percent of Democrats and Republicans see public health as a national priority. To help trek through this quagmire and to shed light on ‘the situation in Congress,’ the Harvard T. H. Chan School’s Voices in Leadership program invited the Honorable Trent Lott (R-MS) to speak on October 25, 2016.

Watch “Bipartisan Leadership: A Conversation with Trent Lott,” a session from the Voices in Leadership series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

As a Congressman to the people of Mississippi for 35 years and as a former Senate Majority leader and Republican Whip, Mr. Lott was invited to unpack the political gridlock on Capitol Hill in the second part of an ongoing series. The first part was started by a close friend and collaborator of Mr. Lott, the Honorable Tom Daschle (D-SD) — a former Senate Majority Leader himself.

This year, the national health expenditure has soared to $3.35 trillion. This averages to $10,345 for every man, woman, and child. The total national health expenditure of the country’s Gross Domestic Product stands at 17.5 percent, as reported by the Center for Disease Control. One may be inclined to think that such an expense would make the United States’ healthcare the best in the world. The U.S., however, consistently ranks the lowest among the top 11 developed economies on measures of health outcomes, quality, and efficiency. To many these might seem like insurmountable challenges, but not to former Senator Lott. To him, “America is an ongoing national argument,” one with 228 years of debate behind it. He illustrates this in his book Crisis Point, — co-authored with former Senator Daschle — by exploring various challenging moments in America’s history, including the Civil War and the Great Depression.

“We’ve always had very difficult times. But this is America, and we can solve these problems with a few good things — communication, leadership, vision.”
Trent Lott, right, former U.S. Senator for Mississippi, sat down with Dr. Robert Blendon, left, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on October 25, 2016 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School.)

The Honorable Mr. Lott led Congress at a time when the legislative branch in Washington, D.C., enjoyed an approval rating of 84 percent — one of the highest in modern history. When asked how such bipartisanship was possible, the former Senator stressed on simple yet intuitive strategies to build partnerships with people who share contrary ideologies: principles of mutual respect, compromise to achieve common goals, and active efforts to develop chemistry within legislative members.

“Our leaders have lost the ability to communicate, to talk, to listen, and to act. Just a few good men, or women, or both, can change the dynamics in Washington,” the Honorable Mr. Lott said.

He also stressed on the need to develop a strong character, to prioritize issues that have consensus rather than discord, to take tough positions when required, and to engage with those who do not agree with you. The former Senator recounted many examples of this, such as when he voted to separate and recreate the Department of Education — a decision inspired by his mother’s work as a school teacher and his academic stint at the University of Mississippi — even when his constituents and his party did not agree with his position. To address their concerns, the Honorable Mr. Lott published an Op-Ed explaining his stance. “The Department of Health and Welfare were squeezing out Education and I felt like Education deserved its own department,” Mr. Lott said, effectively allaying their concerns.

Media, too, has played a significant role in influencing the national discourse of the country, according to the former Senator. With constant coverage on national and international platforms, many politicians take actions on Capitol Hill to make a statement rather than forge an agreement. This sentiment was echoed by the Honorable Mr. Daschle when he elaborated on how the role of the media in the national conversations has changed from that of a ‘referee’ to that of a ‘participant’ — especially with the evolution of social networks. Politicians should be driving towards attainable goals that demand working closely with opponents rather than thinking about what could potentially make them look bad.

Trent Lott, right, former U.S. Senator for Mississippi, answered questions from Harvard Chan student Dr. Alvin Tran, left, on October 25, 2016 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

Former Senator Lott repeatedly underscored the importance of being open to ideas that may conflict with one’s ideology, to reason with people through logic, and to participate in conversations with players from across the political spectrum. He also highlighted the importance of empathy — politicians need to make conscious efforts to ‘get to know’ their colleagues within and across their party lines through conversations and activities that do not always have a political agenda. He reminisced about his time in the Senate when he encouraged wearing a seersucker suits on seersucker Thursdays, events that even Democrats (among them Dianne Feinstein from California) enjoyed participating in. He termed these activities as ‘lubricants’ for an efficient democracy.

As a closing remark, the Honorable Trent Lott recommended that current political players view this crisis point in the United States as a window of opportunity, a chance to rejuvenate the American spirit — as the country has always been known for getting things done whenever they face a calamity. He implored the leaders of the nation from all fields of work to form a vision for the future of United States, to work with people across political ideologies — even with those who dissent — to find a way to get things done. The former Senator closed by stating people need more reasons to believe in and participate in this democracy, to not waste this crisis point, “because this great republic is in danger, but it is worth saving, and we can do it.”


For more from the Voices in Leadership (@VoicesHSPH) series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (@HarvardHSPH), visit www.hsph.harvard.edu/voices.

Story by Junaid Nabi, a physician who is interested in global health systems and surgical care accessibility and is pursuing a Master of Public Health in Global Health 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.

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