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A Call for Tri-Sector Athletes

By: Matt Segneri 06 Apr 2017

Given the complexity of problems facing business and society, there’s a growing recognition that no one sector can do it alone. We desperately need the collective efforts of the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to tackle society’s toughest challenges.

It’s heartening to have phrases like “public-private partnerships,” “cross-sector collaboration,” and “collective impact” enter our common vocabulary. Strategies should be set by a diverse array of stakeholders—and we all must work harder to ensure that more voices and viewpoints are involved in our problem-solving.

But, it’s not enough to have a larger, more inclusive table. We need a new type of leader at the helm. Someone who can deftly navigate across sectors and enable everyone to rise above real differences, find common purpose, and get big things done.

The leader of the 21st century must be a tri-sector athlete. SEI aims to educate, support, and inspire exactly this type of leader.


While the term was coined in the late 1990s by Joe Nye, Harvard Kennedy School’s former dean and a renowned international relations scholar, the idea is foundational to SEI’s formation in 1993.

SEI’s founding father, John Whitehead (MBA ’47), was an original tri-sector athlete—and a servant leader to his core. He commanded a landing craft on D-Day, oversaw Goldman Sachs as its co-chairman, served as Deputy Secretary of State, chaired the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation after 9/11, and advised dozens of nonprofits in New York.

He did great things for his city and our country. He dedicated his life to making a difference in the world. John was a force. But he operated without ego. He led ethically, listened raptly, and made things happen quietly.

We lost John not long ago, at the age of 92. He never retired, arriving at his office daily. He simply had too much left to do. But his legacy lives on.

He gave the $10 million gift that launched SEI. He was our first board chair. I came back to HBS because of him, to carry this important work forward.


As an HBS student, he and Mike Bloomberg (MBA ’66)—another exceptional tri-sector athlete—were the two alumni I admired most.

I saw some of my story in John’s: proud product of public schools; first-generation college student; active community citizen. I aspired to be more like him.

In the years since, I’ve been lucky to know him. I’ve benefited greatly from his wisdom and generosity, as so many have. He pushed me (and SEI) to be bolder and think bigger.

I see his portrait in my office daily. It’s a reminder of his pioneering vision and vigor for life—and a testament to how much good one tri-sector athlete can do.


The world needs more leaders like John Whitehead and Mike Bloomberg. It demands that those of you reading this post step up and get in the arena.

The lines between sectors are blurring and your leadership should, too. You can’t afford to simply stay in your lane. The problems of our time demand talent that transcends traditional boundaries.

I hope you chart new paths in your careers—building bridges far beyond corporate boardrooms, cutting across sectors, working on issues in which you find passion and purpose. I’ve tried to do so in my own.

As our Dean Nitin Nohria often notes, we aim to educate leaders who make a difference not just in their companies, but in their communities and countries, too.

I’m excited to see a new wave of tri-sector athletes tackling society’s toughest challenges—and it’s a great privilege to be surrounded by so many of them here at SEI.

Matt Segneri (MBA 2010) is the Director of the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative.