Q+A with Kimberlyn Leary

The Ash Center sat down with Kimberlyn Leary, an Ash Center faculty affiliate and key member of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative’s leadership team, to discuss how she is leveraging her background in public health and negotiation to help equip mayors and senior city leaders from around the world to lead high-performing, innovative cities. Leary, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a senior vice president of the Urban Institute, joined the Ash Center in fall 2019. 

Ash: As a trained clinical psychologist, how did you come to work on negotiation and collaboration? 

Leary: Starting out, I provided direct clinical services at places like public clinics, and I had a chance to see firsthand how public service impacts families. Then, over time, rather than work on behalf of individuals and families one at a time, I wanted to work with and through the organizations that serve them. For more than two years, I worked as an advisor at the federal level for the Obama administration under three different offices: the White House Council on Women and Girls, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Health Division in the Public Health and Medicare branches.  

From my time working in clinical settings, I was also interested in how patients and doctors negotiate their working relationships. Doctors ask their patients to do difficult things, like change their behavior—a doctor might ask a patient to change how they eat, for example, or to take a medicine with uncomfortable side effects. These discussions essentially entail some negotiation. That perspective on clinical negotiations brought me to the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, which led to my interest in how many different communities negotiate change and how different sectors fail—and succeed—to collaborate.  

Ash: Why did you want to join the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative (BHCLI)?  

Leary: Working at the federal level, I was introduced to the importance of what government can do on behalf of communities and to what multiple sectors can achieve together. 

I was thrilled to first learn about the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative—it was through my own students who had taken Jorrit de Jong’s Innovation Field Lab course. Jorrit and I share a passion for teaching leadership and enhancing collaboration. I like working with cities and city leaders because of how nimble they can be. As you move from city government to state systems and on up to the federal level, you encounter more constituencies and more scale, but there is also more complexity to navigate. In many instances, cities can engage in innovation more rapidly. 

Leary teaching at the Digital Innovation Initiative for European Cities in London in January 2020

Ash: As a part of the BHCLI COVID-19 Local Response Initiative, you helped city leaders navigate the COVID-19 crisis in real time. What was your advice to them? 

Leary: Mayors and city leaders from over 300 cities worldwide joined us virtually each week to receive critical public health information on the spread of COVID-19 and crisis leadership essentials. One of the questions we heard repeatedly from them was how to support mental health, especially among their health-care workers, vulnerable populations, and teams. 

Increasingly, mental health is emerging as a crucial dimension of public policy against the backdrop of this pandemic. There are a number of ways mayors—and all leaders—can help communities respond to the stresses of this crisis:  

Communication is key. Acknowledge the real concerns people face; speak directly to the stressors affecting specific groups, such as small business owners and health-care workers; and keep messaging simple and accessible.  

Mayors can augment access and capacity to mental health services by expanding tele-mental health, pushing out continuous updates on mental health resources, and working to connect vulnerable populations with those resources.  

Help communities grieve by speaking to losses and acknowledge the hardship of being unable to mourn losses together.  

Finally, it’s important for city leaders who are facing multiple crises to model self-care and support their teams.  

Ash: You have now helped develop BHCLI programs that teach city leaders how to think about collaboration and negotiation. What is your go-to advice?  

Leary: One is to think about your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) as deeply as possible. In other words, what will you do instead if you’re not able to reach an agreement? Because if your BATNA is strong, it can help you advocate more forcefully. If it’s not that strong, you may need to double down on collaboration. The other is to differentiate between your position and your interests. Very often, there is a range of solutions that might meet both parties’ interests. Big picture—it is important to recognize that leadership entails looking at issues through many different lenses. The most significant issues and solutions look different to different stakeholders. Differences are also fertile ground for creative innovation when those in leadership roles can engage people in generative conversation. 

Ash: What is next for you?  

Leary: Women and girls, and particularly women and girls of color, are often invisible in our policy conversations. I’ve started a project within the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and the Ash Center on City Innovation for Women and Girls, which aims to understand city efforts towards advancing the status of women and girls. Since my experience at the federal level, I have been attuned to opportunities to look across the country and identify the “best of the best” ideas on how to address the obstacles that women and girls face and transfer that knowledge elsewhere. In September, we shared our preliminary research findings, including promising approaches within and by city governments, at a convening jointly hosted by the Ash Center and the Women and Public Policy Program for municipal practitioners, scholars, and members of the philanthropic community who often partner with cities on this work. I’m hoping we can continue to use this project as a platform to build a learning community, amplify the innovation, and create opportunities for students to work in cities to advance new initiatives. Along the way, I also hope to develop some relevant teaching cases that highlight intersectional leadership.