Commencement 2016 Address

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Remarks as prepared by Dean Nitin Nohria, 26 May 2016

Class of 2016, friends and family, and members of the Harvard Business School community. Good afternoon and welcome.

One of the wonderful courses in the MBA program, and one I used to enjoy teaching, is called Authentic Leadership Development. A central idea in that course is that each of us is deeply shaped by the crucible experiences in our lives—those moments of adversity that mark us for ever. I think the same thing is true for us as a group; and for the Class of 2016, a powerful crucible experience was the way your class came together to support Pedro Meira and Marcelle de Souza Goncalves Meira, and to comfort each other, during Pedro’s illness and his untimely death last fall. Like all of you, I can only marvel at Marcelle’s strength and Pedro’s spirit, which shone so brightly in her Class day remarks yesterday.

Beyond this remembrance of how your group dealt with an episode of profound sadness, I hope you graduate today with an equally profound happiness, with a deep reservoir of warm memories of your own--including cold-calls you nailed, cases you cracked, FIELD experiences you enjoyed, friends with whom you laughed. Today, as you leave our campus, I would like to offer a last set of thoughts.

As you know, I am perhaps overly fond of alliteration. I am going to talk with you about 3 Hs: HOPE, HUMILITY, and HONOR.

When I think about HOPE, my thoughts turn thousands of miles to the south, to Antarctica. Over the winter holiday, I was fortunate to travel to this remote and magnificent part of the world. What made the trip truly special was that we were able to share this experience with my 83-year old father and his grandchildren, our two college-aged daughters. It may be way too early for you to be forming a bucket list, but put this on yours when you get to it.

During much of this trip, we were retracing the route traveled by the explorer Ernest Shackleton.

Many of you are familiar with the story of Shackleton. During a journey to explore Antarctica, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice and was destroyed. After many months the crew reached a deserted island, but Shackleton determined they would die if they stayed there. So 100 years ago, in this month of May, Shackleton set out in a small, open boat on an 800-mile voyage to summon help, leading rescuers back to his crew—all of whom, remarkably, survived.

As I re-read his story on our trip to Antarctica, my admiration for Shackleton kept increasing. Even in a large modern ship, the seas were rough. How he survived this voyage in a tiny open boat is beyond my imagination.

Yet Shackleton’s greatest achievement wasn’t in the logistics or the bravery of his mission. Instead, it was this: In a situation that most would have considered hopeless, he continued not only to remain optimistic himself, but he continually instilled hope in his crewmates. He refused to let them give in to the despair that logic would lead them to feel. He did not allow them to give up, either emotionally or physically.

This is what great leaders do—they not only spark hope in themselves, they instill hope in others.

As someone who has taught leadership for many years, I am especially inspired by historical leaders like Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Mahatma Gandhi, who nurtured a hope among vast numbers of people during the bleakest of times. As you continue your work as leaders, always remember the importance of HOPE.

The second quality or virtue I ask you to consider today is HUMILITY. A few weeks ago, when I visited your classrooms during Bridges, I witnessed many of you discussing leaders who were inspiring examples of the school’s mission of making a difference in the world. Across classes, the word I most commonly found on the blackboard outlining these leaders’ virtues was Humility.

Humility is a broad quality, but it has a few important dimensions.

Intellectual humility is the virtue of knowing that no matter how smart you think you are, you can always learn something from other people. Harvard Business School is an ideal training ground for intellectual humility: While all of you are extraordinarily smart, you have now spent two years in classes where you have inevitably learned from someone else in the room—and this is an attitude you should continue to exhibit throughout your careers.

Moral humility is the awareness that no matter how self-assured you are about your moral compass, you are vulnerable, under stress or in certain contexts, to losing your way. Remember the Milgram experiments you studied in your Leadership and Accountability class. Although we would like to believe that we are the one who would be able to resist an authority figure’s instructions to deliver electrical shocks to innocent people—remind yourself that most people, just like us, with an equal commitment to decency, succumbed in this situation. It’s a lesson you should keep in mind, in your professional and personal lives.

Personal humility is knowing that it is so much better to let others talk about your accomplishments than to talk about them yourself.

There are many Harvard Business School alumni who embody personal humility. Indeed, as I think about the distinguished alumni we celebrate today, it is a characteristic they all share. Someone I personally think of as exemplifying this virtue is Dick Spangler, a member of our class of 1956, who will be returning to campus next week for his 60th reunion (something I hope all of you will also do).

Perhaps the most frequently told story about Mr. Spangler is one that some of you may have experienced yourself. When Mr. Spangler visits campus, he arrives unannounced. His very favorite thing to do is to wander into the dining hall, unobtrusively sitting down with students as they eat their meals, and engage them in discussions about their backgrounds, their studies, and their ambitions. Sometimes the students leave these interactions having no idea who this charming, inquisitive Southern gentleman was. Other times, students might ask his name, and he replies simply: “I’m Dick Spangler.”

When this happens, you can see the puzzled look turning into an epiphany on these students’ faces: I’m talking to Mr. Spangler, as in the Spangler Center. There is a magic to how low-key Mr. Spangler is about his contributions, both to the world and to our institution. He never calls attention to himself. He doesn’t travel with an entourage. He’s more interested in learning about you than having you pay attention to him. He listens far more than he talks.

This kind of personal humility is becoming all-too-rare, as social media breeds an attitude of look at me!” Now, I have nothing against posting photos of a joyous occasion like today, but it’s important to keep in mind that even when you’re not taking selfies, people are watching. You will all become leaders of teams and organizations, and as you assume these roles, people will be watching closely for signs of hubris and self-importance. This is never an attractive quality. Consider how frequently the tabloids are filled with stories about some self-entitled person shouting at someone those six words that can quickly ruin a reputation: “Don’t you know who I am?” So, no matter what you accomplish—and we all hope it will be a great deal—always remain humble.

Finally, I ask you to consider a third virtue, that of HONOR.

Many people like to use the word honor as a noun, as something you give or receive—such as the honor you have achieved for yourselves and your families by graduating from our institution this afternoon.

However, I prefer to use the word honor most frequently as a verb. In this usage, honor is something active that you do. Honor is about making and keeping commitments.

Start first by honoring people who don’t expect it, but whose work helps make your leadership possible. Two years ago, students at Harvard Business School began a practice called Staff Appreciation Day, and it’s become one of my favorite annual traditions. This is a day in which students honor the people who serve them around the campus—the people who prepare their meals, wash their blackboards, and set up the chairs on which you’re sitting right now. This year, your class utilized Instagram to offer these thanks, and it was gratifying to see you put your own mark on this tradition. Even when you leave here, remember to honor the work of all the people in your organization, and especially those who are seldom recognized.

I have learned much about honor over many years of teaching a particular group of MBA students: Veterans who arrive at Harvard Business School directly from their military service, which in recent years has often included tours of Iraq or Afghanistan. We have more than 50 of these students graduating today. They talk about honoring their country by their service—a commitment that, in some cases, includes risking their lives. We should all take the opportunity to honor them whenever we can.

As each of you think about honoring the people that make a difference in your life, I hope your thoughts will immediately turn to a group of people who are particularly important this afternoon: the family and guests who are celebrating with you as you graduate.

As much as today is a celebration of you and what you’ve accomplished, 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.

So members of the Class of 2016, stand up and turn towards your guests.

Please join me in honoring them by 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. We encourage you to continue to pursue work and life with a sense of HOPE, to conduct yourself with HUMILITY, while taking time to HONOR those who make your success possible. Doing so will also be the best way to honor yourself. Be assured that everyone here at HBS 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 – in this centenary year of Shackleton – bon voyage!