“Leadership is about presence – you cannot lead behind a mask.”

In his two-year mission service in Haiti for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Ben Peterson experienced something that “completely changed my worldview. I had a privileged life. I had never lived in poverty, had never understood what it meant to be hungry. Here I was, worried about what classes I should take, and in Haiti there were millions of people worried if they’d be safe at night.”

Determined to understand poverty and what he could do about it, Ben studied international relations at Stanford. His thesis brought him back to Haiti – and to some surprising conclusions. “I was generally interested in foreign aid and, specifically, on road building,” says Ben. “What explained road conditions? Was it just weather, climate, materials? After accounting for variables, I found that the source of funding made the most difference. Everyone loves to build a road, but no one thinks about how to maintain it. In the end, the Haitian government built the most kilometers of high-quality roads because it was incented to maintain them. The experience got me interested in incentives, in what motivates people and what drives accountability in government and organizations.”

Getting the chills and becoming authentic

One visit to a campus class convinced Ben that HBS was the MBA for him. “A student made an insightful comment – and the entire classroom erupted in applause. The professor said, ‘Good timing, good content, good delivery,’ and the class continued. I got the chills. I realized that this is a school where students push each other to achieve excellence in persuasion, reasoning, and delivery – they celebrate that.”
 
Ben celebrates the very challenges that make him uncomfortable. “Before, I naturally led from a safe place, my ‘work face,’” he says. “I was never vulnerable. I just wanted to move on and get work done. But here, I’ve learned that in order to establish trust, you need to be authentic, yourself. It’s about practicing self-disclosure and real authenticity. Leadership is about presence – you cannot lead from behind a mask.”