Commencement 2011 Address

Remarks as prepared by Nitin Nohria, 26 May 2011

The HBS class of 2011, friends and family, and members of the HBS community. Good afternoon, and welcome!

I will always enjoy a special bond with the Class of 2011, as you are the first to graduate during my tenure as Dean. As I stand here today, giving this Commencement address, I have to pinch myself to believe it is actually happening. When I came to the United States in 1984 to attend graduate school — at that other noted institution in Boston on the wrong side of the river, called MIT — I have to tell you, this moment was beyond anything I could have imagined. Like some of you may have felt when you joined HBS, I was desperately hoping that I would somehow survive and not make a fool of myself among my peers.

But what makes great American universities great is that they open up opportunities you can scarcely imagine. I began a doctoral program thinking I would become an international banker and instead found a very different path — a path that has brought me to teaching and here, to Harvard Business School. In the years since, my career has unfolded in wonderfully unexpected ways. So you, too, should stand ready to be amazed, because your experience at Harvard Business School will create opportunities you never envisioned.

And you wont just see opportunities. The other thing great universities like Harvard provide is the self-confidence to pursue them. Yes, I realize you may be thinking that self-confidence is the one thing your classmates werent lacking when they came to HBS. But the self-confidence I refer to is of a different kind: its the can do attitude that comes from knowing you have the skills, tools, and ability to go after your dreams. After all, what good are opportunities if you dont feel ready to capitalize on them? As you graduate today, I hope you feel that heady sense of possibility and the deep-rooted sense of self-confidence that you really can do what you want to do.

Yet if you are to truly live up to the Schools mission and become leaders who will make a difference in the world, you will need to do more. You will need to earn the confidence of others. That is the true mark of a leader: someone who inspires others, brings out the best in others, and enjoys the trust and confidence of others.

What will determine your ability to inspire this confidence? The credentials you have gained from attending Harvard Business School will help. But eventually, it will be the trust people will be able to place in your competence and character.

At the end of more than 500 cases, and scores of exams, papers, and projects, I hope you feel more competent to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. Remember that the quality of your decisions and actions will always matter, and the judgment you display in various situations will be a key measure of your leadership. As you gain experience, your competence will grow if you nurture the habits we tried to instill while you were here at HBS. Always be prepared. Think deeply about problems. Analyze them from multiple perspectives. Solicit the opinions of others and debate options rigorously. Make a considered and thoughtful decision, however difficult it may be. Have the courage to act in the face of uncertainty. Maintain the willingness to revise your course of action if need be.

As much as HBS has contributed to the development of the competence you will need to become a leader, I hope your time at HBS has also cultivated the character you will need to earn the confidence of others. It can be easy to feel secure about your character. We all know it is wrong, for example, to lie, cheat, steal, or break the law. Yet I trust you have learned — through courses like LCA and through scenarios like the scandals you read about in the daily newspapers — that the pressures and temptations business leaders experience can sometimes cause even good people — people who were once admired for their character — to go astray.

The best insight I have gained into character is a quote from Abraham Lincoln I came across when I was teaching in the MBA Program. Lincoln was asked: Whats the best test of a persons character? He noted that the response most people gave to that question is adversity — that peoples true selves are revealed when times are difficult, or when they are faced with a particularly daunting challenge. In his experience, however, the true measure was power. What are the choices people make when they are in positions of influence?

It is deeply important to get this right. Were at a point in history when the bond of trust between business and society has been fractured, if not broken, yet I firmly believe that business is and must remain the engine that contributes to the welfare and prosperity of society.

Let me illustrate what I mean. I have the privilege of speaking with HBS alumni throughout the world. One recent conversation was particularly moving: Robert Kapito, a member of the Class of 1983 (who is with us here today, as his son Aaron is a member of the Class of 2011) is today a Director and President of BlackRock, Inc. — the worlds largest asset management firm. BlackRock was among the firms that saved our banking system from collapse. At a moment of great peril, Rob and his partners at BlackRock stepped in. I should note Rob wasnt our only alum to play a pivotal role in the crisis; Jamie Dimon, whos here today as well for his daughter Julias graduation, played an equally instrumental role at JP Morgan Chase.

But back to Rob. On this particular day, Rob wasnt talking about rescuing banks. He showed me an old black and white photo. His parents were standing in front of the gas station they owned. I dont think I ever saw them with clean hands, Rob recalled. But the dignity and integrity they brought to their work transcended their surroundings.

Rob worries that the erosion of public confidence in institutions, especially business schools like ours, will impact the ability of others from equally or more modest backgrounds to succeed. They wont benefit from the trust that historically has been granted to those who have studied in this exceptional community of learning.

But there is more at stake. HBS was created with the understanding that its students, faculty and alumni would serve as trustees of the public good in the United States and around the globe. As Edwin Gay, the Schools first dean, noted, A great university is longer lived than any other human institution. For generation after generation, it renews the springs of high purpose. What does that mean? When revolution rocked Egypt, HBS alumni immediately began to think about how business might contribute to a new social order; when nature wreaked havoc in Japan, alumni gathered via the web to talk about rebuilding; and when Mexico needed ideas on how to maintain economic competitiveness, members of the HBS community convened a brainstorming session.

HBS faculty, students and alumni are called upon to help solve the worlds most intractable problems because society at large understands that this institution is home to individuals of competence and character. So remember Lincolns wisdom. The real test of your character as a leader will come as you gain power over the course of your career. And if you cant remember Lincoln, remember Spiderman: with awesome power comes awesome responsibility.

Your character will shine if you show humility. Humility as a component of character takes work. It takes constant conscious effort. It is that effort that I believe has been abandoned by so many in positions of power across all sectors of society. Your challenge is to reclaim humility for yourselves and for your generation of leaders.

This is a moment where I want to stop and put advice into action. Members of the Class of 2011, stand up and turn around. As much as today is a celebration of you and what you have accomplished, none of it would be possible without the support you have received from others — the husbands, wives, and partners, the parents, the sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and friends who have nurtured you, encouraged you, and believed in you. Give them a hand.

Your challenge is to reassert character as an important measure of success in our society. Your character will truly sparkle if you are experienced as being driven not by a desire to enhance your own self-worth but by your passion to advance a broader, and more noble purpose.

Society loses trust when leaders are seen as self-centered — when they are seen to claim value before they create value. Leaders gain trust when they are seen to be motivated by higher aims and when they have the fortitude to stay true to their principles.

Leaders who are known for their competence and character. Thats what we expect of Harvard Business School graduates. Show the world that you can live up to these high expectations.

When the campus was inaugurated, here on this same lawn in front of Baker Library, Owen Young — who was then the CEO of General Electric — had the following to say: I make no apology for our devotion to business. It represents for the majority of our people the major activity of life. It is more than production. It is more than trade. It is more than transportation and finance. It is more than all of them together.

Like Owen Young, I believe that business is the greatest force for creating prosperity in society. There is no problem facing society or humanity today that can be solved unless business plays a vital role. You are the leaders that must make this difference, that must make the world a better place for all of us. That is the mission of Harvard Business School, and our mission is now in your hands.

I know you can and will make a difference in the world. Godspeed!