professors discuss the meaning of presidential leadership | New


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Members of the Harvard community gathered at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Wednesday evening for a panel discussion on presidential leadership.

Four professors from Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School participated in the panel, whose discussion centered largely on Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr.’s new book, “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Age.” .

Nye himself participated in the discussion, with Professors Nancy F. Koehn, Graham T. Allison ’62 and David Gergen moderating the event.

The event began with a broad, unanswered question: “Does it really matter who the rulers are, or is history ultimately defined by the structure of the era in which they were born?” “

While members of the audience pondered this question, the four professors entertained various counterfactuals in an attempt to dissect the question.

“If Kennedy had been killed by Oswald two years earlier, we would have gone through the missile crisis with Johnson as president and most likely would have gone to war,” Allison said.

While Allison’s statement underscored the importance of a single leader in the course of history, Koehn later pointed out that presidential leadership is as much a function of structure as it is of individual agency.

“The structure and the agency both make the story. It’s both the time and the person, ”Koehn said. “Franklin Roosevelt was very constrained in the mid-1930s and he didn’t know much about foreign policy. It was only with Pearl Harbor that he was able to put his foot on the pedal.

Nye agreed that the individual and the timing are important. He compared the presidency of George Bush Sr. to that of his son, referring to the elder Bush as having a high level of “contextual intelligence” because of the way he handled the dissolution of the Soviet Union. . On the other hand, Nye argued, the young Bush lacked the contextual intelligence to carry out his mission in the Middle East.

Towards the end of the panel discussion, Koehn shared an experience she had in her lecture in light of the Boston Marathon attack on Monday.

Three students in her class, all from the Middle East, spoke of the thousands of people who were killed in terrorist attacks in their home countries last week.

Koehn said the stories of these students made him realize the need for redemptive leadership.

She added that the solution lies in realizing that human suffering in the world is universal.

“I am waiting for Barack Obama or some of our other leaders, like Abraham Lincoln did, to call us to the best angels of our nature,” Koehn said before thunderous applause from the audience.

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Kevin E. Boling

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