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Former Stanford President Advocates Empathy, Optimism, and Leadership in 2020 Godkin Lecture

Former Stanford President John L. Hennessy delivered the annual Godkin Lecture at Harvard Kennedy School.
Former Stanford President John L. Hennessy delivered the annual Godkin Lecture at Harvard Kennedy School. By Idil Tuysuzoglu
By Cara J. Chang and Austin C. Ma, Crimson Staff Writers

John L. Hennessy, chairman of Alphabet and former president of Stanford University, affirmed his faith in the next generation of leaders to confront mounting crises in Thursday’s annual Godkin lecture.

“We have difficult problems, but we have really great people and we have a great young generation,” Hennessy said. “All of us that are in the education field, if we can help prepare these young people, we can solve these problems.”

The Godkin lecture series honors Edwin L. Godkin, founder of the liberal magazine The Nation. The Kennedy School has hosted the lectures each year since 1903.

“Public duty can be exercised in many ways, and we use the Godkin Lecture to help students learn about the possibilities,” Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf wrote in an email to The Crimson. “The most recent Godkin lecturers — Gina Raimondo and Eric Holder — did their public duty through roles in government, while this year’s lecturer — John Hennessy — did his public duty through his scientific research and university leadership.”

Hennessy's lecture, “There and Back Again: Leadership Lessons from the Farm to Silicon Valley,” was held as a Zoom webinar after being postponed from Mar. 11.

David R. Gergen, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, invited Hennessy and moderated the Godkin lecture. The two discussed the foundations of strong leadership, the role of higher education in fostering those values, and the power students have to empathize and make change.

The lecture opened with Hennessy stressing that strong leadership is needed to face the challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, economic turmoil, racial injustice, climate change, and the upcoming presidential election.

Conversation turned from global problems to a solution Hennessy has dedicated himself to since retiring from the Stanford presidency in 2016 — the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program at Stanford University. The scholarship is designed to train world leaders in government, business, and nonprofits. Admitted scholars study at Stanford’s graduate schools while participating in the program, which focuses on fostering collaboration and leadership qualities, namely humility, authenticity, and empathy.

“I’ve always believed that leadership is something you learned by climbing the ladder one rung at a time,” Hennessy said. “We try to build those kinds of experiences.”

During the question session which followed the lecture, Harvard students focused on current issues such as political polarization, online misinformation, and race relations in the U.S. Hennessy offered some ideas on how to combat these problems but emphasized there was no clear solution.

Still, Hennessy said he remains optimistic because of the empathy of rising leaders. Young leaders are willing to rethink problems and work across traditional boundaries like race and occupation because they are exposed to more diverse communities, Hennessy said.

“You can sense a feel that young people are willing to work problems which perhaps some of the older generation are willing to ignore,” he said.

He added that colleges are excellent places to foster leadership since they provide an intellectual environment for young people to gather and learn from each other. Educators’ goal, Hennessy said, should be to help and guide young leaders by exposing them to different viewpoints and opportunities.

“It’s my core purpose now,” Hennessy said.

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