Commencement 2013 Address

Remarks as prepared by Dean Nitin Nohria, 30 May 2013.

The HBS Class of 2013, family and friends, and members of the HBS community. Good afternoon and welcome.

Every graduating class has something that distinguishes it, a special quality by which it is remembered. When we think of the Class of 2013, we will always remember you as a group of pioneers, as students who experienced so many firsts during your two years at Harvard Business School. You were the class that experienced our year-long celebration of the W50, marking the admission of women to our MBA program 50 years ago. You were the class that helped us launch the i-Lab, opening all of Harvard to a shared exploration of entrepreneurial ideas. And most importantly, you were the first class to experience FIELD, perhaps the most significant experiment in our MBA curriculum since HBS began using case studies almost 100 years ago.

It’s no exaggeration to say that you have probably experienced more innovations during your time as MBA students than most of the classes in the School’s 105-year history. I hope this status gives you a great sense of pioneering pride, as it should.

Today I’d like to offer a few thoughts on some personal qualities that I hope will stay with you long after you leave HBS—qualities that you’ve already exhibited during your time here, and that will serve you well as you continue to build your lives and careers.

When I became dean I outlined five priorities for the School that I called the 5 Is: innovation, intellectual ambition, internationalization, inclusion, and integration. When people heard these 5 Is, they told me I was in love with alliteration. Let me talk with you today about 3 As: Audacity, Adaptability, and Appreciation.

If you’re going to undertake something, do it with AUDACITY—live in keeping with the saying “Go big or go home.” You will begin this next phase of your lives in a world facing very large challenges. To solve them, we desperately need people who see giant opportunities where others see giant problems, people who think big, people who—as our former student Nate Bihlmaier would remind us—“make no little plans.” As you go forward, remember the audacity you showed when you applied to HBS. Remember what your classmate Alexandra DeVito wrote in her application: “I am the type of adventurer who is afraid of heights, but selects roller coasters with the biggest vertical drops to keep my fear fresh. I wouldn’t want to forget how to terrify myself on command.”

During your time here, you joined us on a similar roller coaster ride we called FIELD—an effort to reimage how we educate MBA students to give them more opportunities for learning by doing, because leadership is not just about mastering a body of knowledge. It is translating that knowing into doing, and internalizing and exhibiting the being of leadership.

When we look back on FIELD, it can be easy to forget just how risky it was at the outset. Within a relatively short planning period, six months, we had to arrange for 900 students—each and every one of you—to fly to an emerging market, in most cases a place you’d never visited before. We had to arrange for you to work inside a company—150 of them scattered all over the world—on a real and meaningful business problem.

It would have been easy for us to try something less ambitious—to try FIELD out with just a section or two. I vividly remember coming back from a meeting of our Board of Dean’s Advisors where they had told us we were trying to do too much, too soon. It is easy to doubt yourself when you are trying to do something audacious; indeed the only way to know you are being audacious enough is if others, and occasionally even you yourself, have doubts about your ambition. But we felt that if FIELD was worth doing, we should manage the risks and go big right from the start, and do it audaciously.

I’m sure all of you have some amazing memories of your FIELD 2 excursion 16 months ago. I have my own vivid memories of that time. Each evening, I’d wait and watch my email inbox for a simple message: “All students accounted for. Everyone is safe.”

While I hope you learned much from your FIELD experience, I hope you also realize how much HBS learned from you during this experience, and from your willingness to be the pioneers in this important experiment. Probably 40% of what we did in the second year of FIELD was different than what we did with you the first year, all because of the feedback you provided—some gently, and some not so gently. All kidding aside, this is an important point: Although HBS exhibited audacity in trying to do something as groundbreaking as FIELD, audacious behavior should be undertaken with a sense of humility, a recognition of fallibility, and a firm sense that we don’t know all the answers.

That attitude is at the heart of the second personal characteristic I will ask you to consider today: ADAPTABILITY. During spring break, while many of you took the chance to travel, I too took a trip of my own to a destination that had long been on my bucket list—the Galapagos Islands. In my academic career I’d studied and written about Darwin, and so this was a particularly meaningful trip for me.

When people think of Darwin, or for that matter Harvard Business School, the first thing that comes to mind is “survival of the fittest.” That often brings up connotations of species that are the strongest, the smartest, the tallest, or the fastest. But when you see animals in the islands where Darwin worked to develop his theory, you’re often reminded that “the fittest” aren’t always the fastest or strongest. Darwin was clear: The fittest are those most willing to adapt to changes in their environment.

We would all be well advised to follow their lead. At HBS, despite our storied history, we have always consistently worked to adapt to the changing world. When I arrived here twenty-five years ago, almost all of the case studies we taught focused on U.S. companies; last year, more than 50% of the new cases we wrote featured companies in international settings, reflecting the extraordinary changes that globalization has brought to business and society.

As you enter the next phases of your careers, remember you will inevitably need to adapt, too. To cite just one example, some of you will be going to work in the field of private equity, which has emerged over the last decade as a popular career for MBA graduates. It’s important to recognize that when the people leading PE firms graduated from business school 30 years ago, private equity barely existed. The people leading these firms are HBS alumni who literally created the field. That may sound astonishing today, but it’s not that unusual. If you look at some of the most popular employers today, you’ll see names like Google and Amazon and Facebook. Not only did those firms not exist 20 years ago, their industries didn’t exist, either.

Creating graduates who can dynamically adapt to an ever-changing business environment has been a goal of HBS since its inception. We hope that the education you have received here prepares you to excel in your first job after HBS, but our real goal is that it prepares you for the work you’ll do over the entire arc of your life.

To be adaptable, you must be open to feedback and criticism. You must consider the views of others. You must be willing to embrace uncertainty, and to enter risky situations where you’re not exactly sure of the outcome. You must be inventive, and attentive to finding new opportunities to create value in the world. I hope we’ve helped you develop these qualities during your two years with us, and I urge you to continue to develop them in the years ahead.

Throughout, though, remember that even as the world changes and you adapt to the challenges and opportunities it presents, you must stay true to your authentic self. When I became Dean, I received a lot of advice. But the best advice I received was from my father. In a short hand-written letter, after expressing his joy that I had become the Dean of an institution that I so deeply loved, he wrote: “Above all, be yourself. It is too hard to be the person you think someone else wants you to be. Being inauthentic will almost inevitably trip you up. The only way you can and should do this job is by being true to yourself.” It is advice that has served me well many a time that I wanted to pass on to you.

The third characteristic I wanted to consider this afternoon is APPRECIATION. It’s an emotion that this class has had many opportunities to reflect upon, for your group has become especially acquainted with the fragility of life.

Even before the Class of 2013 arrived on campus, it lost one of its members, a Nigerian engineer named Nkiru Amene, to an automobile accident. And in the last six weeks, you’ve lived through the Boston Marathon bombings and its aftermath, and you’ve grieved with us for the daughter of a longtime HBS staff member who was a victim of the attack. During times of great sadness, community becomes even more important, and during these recent weeks I have appreciated the great sense of community the Class of 2013 has worked to create.

In reflecting on what took place on Boylston Street on that April afternoon, it’s astonishing how bravely and effectively our city’s first responders performed—and how much gratitude we all owe them for preventing even more loss of life. If you think back to Darwin, you’ll recall that animals are shaped by evolution to flee from danger; it’s an essential survival instinct. But as bombs began shaking the final yards of the Marathon route, Boylston Street was flooded by people in uniform and in civilian clothes running—not away from but toward the problem. It’s a striking image.

While the everyday problems faced by managers are less dramatic and less dire, we can all learn a lesson from our city’s first responders, and we can aspire to be the kind of people who run toward problems.

Very few of the problems you will face in your lives and careers will be the kind of thing you can solve by yourself. More often, you’ll be part of a team—or leading the team—that confronts a challenge. In this situation, you will be well-served to be aware of the importance of showing appreciation, and showing it often. At HBS our mission is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, and every leader must recognize and appreciate the work of his or her team—without whom, there is no one to lead. Think back over the last two years and consider how many times we asked you to work in groups, to collaborate, to cooperate, and think back to how in most of those cases, the task we put before you was one you couldn’t possibly have completed on your own. Part of the goal of these exercises was to help you learn to appreciate others.

On a day like today, it’s especially appropriate that all of us (once again, as our class day speaker Brooke Boyarsky asked us to do yesterday) show our appreciation to those who have helped you make it to this milestone. So members of the Class of 2013, stand up and turn around. As much as today is a celebration of you, none of it would be possible without the strong support you’ve received from others—the husbands, wives and partners; the parents, sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who’ve nurtured you, encouraged you, and believed in you. Please join me in giving them a hand.

The faculty and I join your families in congratulating you on all you have accomplished during your time with us. We celebrate you, and we wish you good fortune as you begin your next adventures. The world desperately needs good leadership and you can provide it. So be audacious, be adaptive, and be appreciative of the many blessings in your lives, most especially the privilege to lead. We will be rooting for you to become leaders who will make a difference in the world and in the lives of all you touch. As you begin this exciting journey, I wish you Godspeed.