May 28, 2020
It is a great honor to join you on this day, which you’ve worked so long and so hard to reach.
I imagine it looks a bit different than what you expected. Whatever you pictured, it surely didn’t involve staring at me on a computer screen. These are unusual times to say the least.
But part of being alive is about how you navigate twists and turns, and that means preparing yourself for the unexpected.
Growing up in Nigeria, I certainly never expected to be delivering commencement remarks at Harvard, via videoconference or otherwise.
I come from what might seem like an unusual background. I’m from an extended family of herdsmen. Not exactly a conventional path, but it turns out that those who tend to livestock have a lot to teach us about public health.
Herdsmen and women do more than look after the basic physical needs of their flock.
They must understand the broader terrain within which they work: our relative place in the food chain, the effects of the sun and the water and the land, and how the health of each individual animal depends on an ecosystem.
Even during the best of times, they are forced to do a lot with very few resources, to make sacrifices for the greater good, and every day make what would amount to life and death decisions.
And they know that the choices they make will have consequences for their immediate survival and for generations to come.
That’s why one of the herdsman’s most important tasks is to earn the trust of their flock and their community. With that trust, they must corral everyone in one direction and move them towards a shared goal.
The herdsman is constantly moving around the herd, knowing when to be in front, and when to stay behind.
Knowing the importance of including everyone—boys, girls, women, men, cattle, sheep, dogs, and their community in order to survive the oftentimes harsh realities of nature.
The herdsman is also forced to learn what is dangerous and what may be safe, by looking both behind and ahead, and even sideways, left and right.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar to you?
These are some of the fundamentals of public health leadership. And that leadership—your exercising that leadership—has never been more critical.
To be sure, these are difficult times to do the work that you have trained for.
The COVID-19 pandemic is exacting enormous tolls on the health of populations, on economies, and on societies all over the world.
Perhaps more than any event in recent memory, it has the potential to shift our thinking—not just in one country, but in how all of us see and experience the world.
The magnitude of this pandemic speaks to something that herdsmen have understood for millennia: that simple but powerful notion that we are all interconnected—humans, animals, pathogens, and our global environment.
That is as true today as it is ever.
This interdependence means that what happens in your country very much affects what happens in mine.
That reality comes amid the background of many other challenges in our world, from widening inequality, both within and across countries, to an unfolding climate crisis, and the rise of nationalism at a time that desperately calls for unity of nations in the world.
So, the world that you are graduating into is more complex, and in many ways more daunting, than the one I graduated into years ago.
But you also have some advantages on your side. The unprecedented developments in biotechnology, amazing leaps in digital technology, an extraordinary Harvard education, a fresh and global perspective, great classmates who will now become colleagues. And, yes, you will one day meet in person again.
Yet, there is a lot of uncertainty as you prepare to embark on or continue your careers. There is fear of the unknown that lies ahead. But one thing is clear: As the prospective leaders of this field, you have the potential to help the world find our way out of this pandemic. You will help us chart a path toward a healthier, more prosperous and equitable world.
Throughout history, in the face of crisis, it has been great leaders who paved the path for humanity to triumph. Leaders who acted within—and, yes, outside their purview—to do what is right, often at great risk to themselves. They are the ones who helped humanity find its way forward.
That’s what we need more of today.
We need leaders who are true to themselves. Leaders of integrity who have the courage of their convictions and who can earn the trust of others. Leaders with courage to confront fears and uncertainties, not to deny their existence. Leaders who will act selflessly in the interest of society and who can empathize with everybody, no matter their creed, culture, race, or circumstances. Leaders who can be relied upon to do the right thing by virtue of their commitment to the science of public health and strength of their character. Leaders who will inspire and empower others, while building consensus and multi-stakeholder coalitions, such as is required to solve the tough challenges ahead.
But above all, what we need from our leaders is accountability. A willingness to put themselves on the line to get things done—and to demand that of each other.
The work of the public health leader is, in many ways, the work of the herdsman at scale.
With keen observation, using scientific tools, galvanizing people from a range of backgrounds and perspectives towards a common goal, to not just overcome a crisis, but to make progress towards preventing the next one—that is exactly what the Harvard Chan School has prepared you to do.
And that is how you will shepherd us towards a safer, healthier world.
Because now more than ever, the world is counting on scientists. It’s looking up to public health practitioners to lead the charge toward a safe harbor for mankind. I am confident that, with leaders like you at the helm, the world will emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient, by learning from our past, by seeking new answers with humility, by listening with empathy and grace, and by working together on behalf of our common humanity.
Now is the time for hope. And the reason for our hope is not wishful optimism, but rather because you are better prepared for this than any other cohort of future public health leaders.
And that makes your graduation even more worthy of celebration, as the world battles the current pandemic. So, congratulations and Godspeed to the class of 2020!