Professor Ronald Heifetz has no doubt spoken hundreds of thousands of words – and written untold thousands more – on the subject of public leadership in a career that has spanned continents and nearly a half-century.
He has helped forge the worldview of the best and the brightest as the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership. He has advised heads of businesses, nonprofits and governments around the world. He was cited in the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize lecture of Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos.
And more than 30 years ago, six of Heifetz’s words broke through to a young member of the Boston School Committee studying at the Kennedy School as a Rappaport Urban Scholar. Kevin McCluskey has run with those six words ever since.
“He said, ‘Politics is the art of inclusion,’” McCluskey remembers today. “I had never heard it before, but it continues to be my guidepost.”
“The art of inclusion.”
McCluskey was 31 when Heifetz uttered those words in a leadership seminar that day, and though he’d never heard it said in that particular way, the sentiment certainly rang familiar.
It reaffirmed the sense of community values that had been instilled by his family on picket lines and as political organizers growing up in Columbia Point, the massive public housing complex that jutted out into Boston Harbor.
It echoed of the honorable calling of public service that had compelled McCluskey to serve as his class president in high school and as the student representative to the Boston School Committee as a teenager.
It rang of the same ideals he had found in common with Jerry Rappaport himself in the lead-up to McCluskey’s own run for the school committee, when his like-minded humanity proved worthy of Rappaport’s financial and moral support.
“We would have lunch, and Jerry sort of took his measure of me,” McCluskey remembers. “I think he has always appreciated people who are trying to do the right thing to help people and serve the City. So he provided financial support.”
But more than a mere affirmation, Heifetz’s words would serve as a lifelong directive for McCluskey, who has since gone on to leave a bold imprint wherever he’s landed.
He cast the swing vote to elect the Boston School Committee’s first African-American President, John O’Bryant. He became a star at Harvard University, serving for 23 years and under four presidents as Director, and later Senior Director, of Community Relations for Boston. And still today, sitting in his office at UMass-Boston, a frisbee-throw from where he grew up in the shadows of the Dorchester city dump, he employs that same mantra in his role as the school’s Associate Director of Athletics for Development and Marketing.
“The art of inclusion.”
“To me,” McCluskey said, “it just says everything you need to know in order to work effectively with people, whether in the political arena or any other setting. It ensures that you’re trying to tap into everyone’s particular talent.”