On February 11th, Tom Ridge, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, addressed the HBS student body and other members of the Harvard community as part of the Leadership and Values Initiative’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Facing a packed Burden auditorium, Ridge spoke on the subject of leadership and on the challenges he has faced as the first appointed Cabinet Secretary of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.
After being introduced by Dean Kim Clark, Ridge began by stating that leadership and ethics should be an “explicit, not implicit component of today’s business school curricula”. In addressing the topic of leadership, he defined the essence of leadership as being marked by two things: First, leadership is personal and individualized, and second, it is rooted in the fundamentals we commit to our character.
Explaining this concept further, Ridge detailed leadership lessons learned from his father. “Aspire to be your best” and “take personal responsibility for your actions” were central to his message. Ridge also highlighted the notion of “shared values” which unite and guide our decisions.
Using his experience in combating the war on terror as a foundation for his thoughts on leadership, Ridge stated that this “new totalitarian threat” is the challenge of the “next chapter of American leadership”. “Terrorists don’t share our values”, Ridge asserted. Ridge emphasized the need for revolutionary change in combating terrorism, and credited President Bush for recognizing the need for a “new, nimble government structure” to address this threat.
Ridge called the creation of the Department of Homeland Security the “biggest management challenge” of all time, comparing the new Department to an overnight creation of General Electric and Federal Express. In blending components from 22 different agencies and 180,000 people under one roof, he spoke of the challenge of streamlining 22 different human resources offices, 13 procurement systems, and eight payroll systems. He lauded the civil servants who serve under this vast umbrella, calling them “men and women with a tremendous sense of mission and commitment”.
Ridge emphasized the main challenge of “remaining operational” while implementing the biggest public sector merger since the days of Harry Truman and the Department of Defense. The challenge, according to him, is in “protecting against and responding to threats, securing America’s borders, all while maintaining the open door policy of this welcoming and economically thriving country”Ridge asserted.
In building the foundation for the new Department, Ridge emphasized the importance of building a “first rate leadership team” with people who had a great “sense of history” and who were committed to the mission. He stressed that titles do not convey leadership, and that a leader must “exude confidence and lead by example”. Ridge quoted Adlai Stevenson, “It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny sitting on a horse.”
Ridge went on to detail the priorities of the new Department, saying less is more, and that a clear set of priorities was key in developing a sound foundation. He spoke of the “well defined charter” laid out in the President’s National Strategy for Homeland Security, and that the new Department was the “primary engine that would drive the strategy”. In calling it a “national strategy”, Ridge spoke of partnering with state and local officials as well as private sector entities to ensure buy-in on a national scale. He cited grants totaling $8 Billion to state and local partners to ensure proper implementation of the new security vision.
Moreover, in citing that “85 percent of America’s critical infrastructure is
owned by private business”, Ridge talked of the importance of educating private business to protect their core assets and employees.
Concluding his remarks, Ridge lauded the successes of the new Department. By establishing “one face” at her borders, the United States has accelerated and unified the border inspection process. Ridge also referred to the success of US-VISIT, which has speeded up the processing of “legitimate passengers” and has matched “more than 100 potential entrants against criminal watch lists”.
Following his remarks, Secretary Ridge answered student questions, covering such issues as the Patriot Act, the Department’s role in security outside America’s borders, as well as the role of the National Guard in protecting the United States. In addressing the delicate balance between civil liberties and security, Ridge cited the need for transparency to ensure success in the battle against violent extremism.
Ridge’s parting words to HBS students hit on the challenge for today’s and tomorrow’s leaders: “That’s what leaders do, they challenge the moment. They become the change they want to see in the world.”