The first few weeks of the first year at HBS can certainly
be overwhelming: meeting 900 new people, learning how to prepare for cases
how to jump in at the right time in class, managing an influx of social events,
determining which clubs to join, and what role to have in them.
It’s easy during this period, surrounded by 89 of the most
impressive people you’ve ever met in your section, to feel like you should
already have a comprehensive understanding of business and leadership
fundamentals to stay afloat. I certainly felt some of this pressure in the
first weeks of school, especially after I was elected President of Section A.
As the weeks pass and the section dynamics fall into place,
you’ll soon realize that this pressure is merely self-inflicted and better let
go, as the sooner you do, the more quickly you can start doing what you, and
everyone else, came here to do: learn how to become a better leader. I left RC
year with more lessons than I can count, but I’d like to share with you five
that I’ve taken away specifically around leadership.
1. There is no single
best leadership style
Prior to HBS, I looked to the leaders I admired at work and
sought to identify the common elements of their styles that I could adapt into
my own way of working. In retrospect, this exercise confined me to a quite
narrowly defined view of effective leadership. There was a clear moment during
our Taran Swan case in our Leadership & Organizational Behavior (LEAD)
class when I realized that it is impossible to take parts of styles that work
for others and hope you are creating an optimal model for yourself. Instead,
the best type of leadership is one that is most authentic to you.
Taran was one of many leaders we studied who had a different
style than I was accustomed to, but one that was true to her strengths,
extremely effective for her and her team and lead her to great success and
admiration within her organization. An organization can sense authenticity and
appreciates when a leader’s actions are consistent and aligned with his/her
beliefs. This freed me from the confines of defining leadership in a certain
2. You don’t need to
And you definitely should not pretend to. Toby Johnson,
another protagonist in LEAD, took on a managerial role in a plant of 200
tenured employees immediately after graduating from HBS. Instead of allowing
insecurities about experience and age translate into a strong armed
dictatorship, she allowed herself to be vulnerable, to ask questions and to
spend significant time early on investing in relationships and learning before
impatiently driving to what would have likely been short term results.
It’s impractical to think you need to know it all. In fact,
the best leaders seem to excel in knowing where their weaknesses are and either
hiring to fill those gaps, or spending time to learn the work themselves, like
3. It’s OK to make
Our section was lucky enough to have Ron Johnson come in to
speak live. I was anxious to hear how he would address his time at JCPenney
given the number of challenges the company faced under his leadership. I was
impressed by his candor and his calm demeanor; he shared with us what worked
for him, what did not and what he took away from the experiences.
A failure that some may have perceived as career shattering
turned into a learning opportunity. While difficult, it’s important to remember
that careers are marathons, not sprints. How you respond to adversity and,
specifically, how you leverage the advocates you’ve established along the way,
is what determines your ultimate success.
While I have clearly learned a lot about leadership through
our cases and professors, some of the greatest leadership lessons I’ve learned
have come from my sectionmates. Here are
two I’ve taken from Section A.
4. Empower your team
Prior to exams, we had a handful of sectionmates volunteer
to organize and lead review sessions. It was inspiring to see, for example,
people with years of finance experience patiently cover concepts from our Finance I class (often
multiple times in a row) to classmates new to the topic. What I took away from
this is, as a leader, it’s not very valuable to have a perfect vision in your
mind if you cannot articulate it well or provide your team or client with the
tools they need for it to be well executed. This transition of information is
time consuming, but so important, as it empowers your team to work confidently
towards, and even improve upon, that vision.
5. Lead with passion
One of the most fulfilling parts of my first year was
learning about the passions of my sectionmates. It’s truly inspiring to see
someone effectively communicate a goal, why it’s important to them and why it
should be important to you, as well. The ones who can do it well, who can allow
others to not only see their same aspirations but also be motivated enough to
join in working towards them, have a gift.
In the best case, it’s easy to do this as a leader because
you are genuinely passionate about your work. Sometimes you won’t be this
lucky. It’s even more critical in these circumstances to really think about why
what you’re doing is important and share that with your team often so they too
can understand how their daily work fits within a larger and meaningful effort.
I know this is just the start of a lifetime of lessons from
HBS. I’m looking forward to continuing to add to this list in EC year and