01 Jun 2000
Going Public: Raymond M. Jefferson
Leadership on the Lineby Mary Ellen Gardner
On October 18, 1995, U.S. Army Captain Ray Jefferson was excited about his future. The West Point graduate had eagerly accepted challenging assignments commanding Ranger and Green Beret units in the United States and in Japan. He was a highly respected leader, in peak physical condition, proud of his achievements, and in charge of a unit in Okinawa with a classified mission. Looking back on that day, Jefferson recalls, "I never thought one incident would change my life forever."
During an afternoon exercise, an explosive device that Jefferson was holding began to count down prematurely. Knowing that detonation would occur in seconds, he looked around for a safe place to throw it. None existed. Surrounded by his team with no time to warn them of the danger, Jefferson encircled the device with his hand, held it against his thigh, and closed his eyes. That brave decision cost him all the fingers on his left hand.
The Army sent him to Hawaii for treatment by a top surgeon, and during his long recovery, Jefferson had ample time for personal reflection. "Ironically, my accident taught me lessons that will improve my life forever," he says. "My most basic values were tested, and I had to reassess my priorities. I always believed that with perseverance and hard work I could achieve anything. Now I had to prove that I could live up to my ideals."
To regain his confidence and renew his spirit, Jefferson began a journey around the world alone. "I learned that I was still quite fortunate despite my injury," he reports of his experiences in Singapore, Egypt, Taiwan, France, Japan, and Italy. "I also found new meaning in my commitment to public service." At the end of his travels, Jefferson enrolled at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government (KSG), where he earned a master's in public policy, and then came to HBS to broaden his understanding of the private sector and how it can collaborate with government and nonprofits to achieve social improvements.
Jefferson has distinguished himself at both KSG and HBS as an active leader and participant in a wide range of community-service and fund-raising projects. Outside Harvard, he visits with amputees and trauma victims and is working on a national awareness campaign with Easter Seals to educate amputees regarding the availability of aesthetic, upper-limb prostheses. He also enjoys "expanding societal perceptions about the limits of human physical capabilities" by maintaining his Special Forces' exercise regimen and competing successfully in full-contact fighting martial arts tournaments.
Jefferson retains a deep affection for the people of Hawaii, who showed him great kindness and empathy during his recovery. In return, as an HBS Social Enterprise Summer Fellow, he launched a leadership program for at-risk Hawaiian high-school students and established new internships that will send more KSG and HBS students to the state to work with nonprofit organizations. This spring, he organized a conference that brought KSG Dean Joseph S. Nye, Jr., to Honolulu for meetings with Hawaiian political and business leaders. Jefferson hopes to increase Hawaiian enrollment at Harvard and at the U.S. Military Academy.
Looking to the future, Jefferson, who has received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Singapore, anticipates a career in government or diplomatic service. Nearly five years after his life took an unexpected turn, he is once again a highly respected leader, in top physical condition, proud of his achievements, and excited about his future.
Photography by Webb Chappell