The Politics of Relationships


By Nathan Finney, MC-MPA’13, Assistant News Editor

Politics is infused in everything we did this year at the Kennedy School; from classes on becoming a politician and managing campaigns, to Forum events with foreign dignitaries and workshops on the arts of communication.  Even the school motto, Ask What You Can Do, is focused on the politics of improving our communities.

And while the word “politics” is usually associated pejoratively with political parties and who gets what, when and how, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned here is that politics is much more than that.  It is the interaction of human beings – the building and leveraging of personal relationships.

Personal relationships are at the institutional core of this school and the personal core of those that elect to come here.  Everyone I had the privilege to meet this year has a story of why they came to the Kennedy School, and it usually began with a friend, mentor or family member encouraging them to seek higher service through an education here.

In my case, I was encouraged to apply by both my Army career manager and my commanding officer.  In the exact words of the former, “If I was a captain, I would apply.  Since I can’t, you will.  The experience and relationships you develop there will shape you into a better tool for the Army.”  Despite my anxiousness that I would not be accepted (I have yet to find a peer that has a lower undergraduate GPA), my commanding officer put it perfectly, “This is not about you, this is about getting the tools to serve better.  If you’re not accepted, then you can continue on the track you’re on.  If you are, then you can buy me a case of scotch and get to work.”

This kind of encouragement and support is not unique.  Each of us had dozens of people that not only pushed us to apply to the Kennedy School, but helped build us into the person that was ultimately accepted: Parents that instilled in us compassion, a sense of service and an ethic of hard work; third grade teachers that made us memorize our multiplication tables; high school literature teachers that opened our mind to the power of words; bosses that gave us responsibilities over people and projects; and friends that encouraged our wild ideas of improving the world around us.

We would not be here without these relationships.

Relationships also propped us up and gave us wings over the last year.  As I entered this school last summer, one of the oft-quoted comments I heard was, ‘You will learn and gain more from your fellow students than any other aspect of this school.’  This was absolutely the case.  At what other point in my life could I have mingled and learned from men who ran nonprofits to support orphans in South Africa, women who were starting a venture to empower and mentor young girls in India, men who will help develop a war-torn Libya, and women who are fighting for the rights of immigrants here in the United States?  Each of these individuals, and countless more, will drive me every day in the future.

More than anything, we were prepared and supported by our families for our role here at the Kennedy School and beyond.  For some, this came in the form of demanding and loving parents, for others encouraging siblings or grandparents.  While both of these are true for me, it was above all my wife and daughters that have pushed me to be better… and to do better.  Nothing is as motivating as the desire to be a good example for your children and to make the person you love most in the world proud.

As we all step across the stage today – many of those who supported and pushed us to attend the Kennedy School proudly watching – remember this is just the mid-point in our journey.  We have many more miles to go, many more relationships to build, and an innumerable amount of problems to solve.  We will not be able to solve any of them without taking part in the politics of developing relationships.

But for today, take a deep breath.  Congratulate yourself for a hard-fought year (or two) at Harvard.  Reflect on the great times and lessons learned.  Thank the wonderful people that made you who you are.  Then look to the future and Do What You Can Do.

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