Commencement 2017 Address
As prepared by Dean Nitin Nohria, 25 May 2017
Class of 2017, friends and family, and members of the Harvard Business School community: Good afternoon and welcome.
The Class of 2017 has witnessed, during its time here at HBS, a series of remarkable global political events: Great Britain’s surprise decision to leave the European Union, one of the most contentious American elections in our nation’s history, and, just recently, the closely-watched presidential race in France.
Today, as you prepare to leave our campus and start the next chapter of your lives, in what can only be described as an increasingly divided and fast-shifting world, I want to offer some parting thoughts specific to the challenging times in which we find ourselves.
Because I am fond of alliteration, I am going to talk with you about 3 Rs. They are RESPONSIBILITY, REACH, and RESPECT.
Your responsibilities as people trained to lead businesses are more important today than ever. You are graduating into a world in which trust and faith in business has declined significantly. In the U.S., unemployment may be at record lows, and the stock market may be at record highs, but these data points do not offer comfort to those who experience firsthand the wide and growing inequality in how the value created by businesses is shared with society. Simply put, many people view the capitalist system in deep need of repair.
As leaders, part of your responsibility is to rebuild this trust between business and society. My hope is that the many discussions you have had, in courses as varied as Leadership and Corporate Accountability and Finance, have given you tools and perspectives that will serve as a guide to you in the future. I hope you have developed, and will continue to develop, both the competence and character of true leadership. You will need both to fulfill your responsibility to rebuild trust. The way that you can do so is by creating shared prosperity; in essence, by ensuring that you create value for others before you claim value for yourself. You can fulfill your responsibility by behaving ethically, and by showing concern for interests other than your own. You can fulfill it by living by a managerial version of the Hippocratic Oath taken by the students graduating across the river today at Harvard Medical School, which starts with a simple yet powerful principle: at a minimum, do no harm.
You can exercise your responsibility to help rebuild trust not only by the big decisions you make leading organizations, but also by the smaller interactions you have every day. Leaders—rightly—are scrutinized more carefully than others, so even small signs of arrogance, excessive pride, or self-interest will be magnified. Hold yourself to a higher standard. Imagine that someday you may be the case protagonist that future generations of MBAs will debate. Ask yourself: How can I be a leader students will want to emulate? Remember: You are a true leader only when you have earned the respect and trust of others, and when others recognize you as such.
I want you to think about how you will respond when you face the inevitable criticism that leadership attracts. No one likes this part of the job. It’s a natural instinct to react defensively, to discount, or to fight back. In our classrooms, though, we teach that learning from feedback—including negative feedback—is an essential act of effective leadership. All of you experienced moments when classmates disagreed with your views; indeed, one of the many benefits of the case method is that one learns to handle such everyday conflict with grace.
As you think about the responsibilities you take on as you graduate today, keep in mind that despite the criticisms that may be levied at businesses and their leaders, when business enterprises are led responsibly, they can be a powerful force for good. This is something I came to appreciate deeply during my childhood. My father grew up in India, in a village with no electricity. He learned to read by candlelight, in a home that routinely reached 110 degrees in the summer because there was no air conditioning. As an adult, my father rose to become CEO of a company that worked to bring electricity to every part of the country. He always had a deep appreciation for how the product he was selling could change the lives of his customers, and of how the jobs his company was creating could transform the lives of his employees. I witnessed this growing up, and it gave me a palpable sense that businesses have a unique capacity to make the world a better place. It’s why I chose to devote my career to educating people to become responsible business leaders.
As a professor and now dean of this institution, this sensibility has grown as I’ve witnessed the lives led by our graduates. Many of our alumni currently lead some of the most admired and most valuable companies on the planet. They have been crucial to the creation and evolution of entire industries, including management consulting, mutual funds, private equity, venture capital, and social entrepreneurship. They are striving to transform economies, whether on a local, national, or global scale, and in doing so, are working to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
If you want your lives to have that kind of impact, you must REACH. I use that word to refer to how you should stretch for things in life that seem just a bit outside your grasp, just a bit audacious. When we reach, we take a risk that has the potential to fundamentally shift the trajectory of our lives and our organizations.
When you think about reach, ask also how you might reach to try and solve some of the biggest problems we are facing in society. Issues like inequality seem so daunting that it can be tempting to sit back and wait for government and policy-leaders who will legislate or regulate solutions. I’d urge you to resist this temptation, and instead to reach to be part of the solution. Some businesses have already begun to lead the way on such issues including living wages, equal rights, and sustainability. Many of the leaders of these businesses have said they have been inspired by the ideals of young leaders like you to take on these causes. The time is ripe for you to make a difference. It’s up to you to help steer the businesses you will join to reach for solutions to society’s most challenging issues.
Often our biggest sense of accomplishment comes not when we reach for ourselves, but when we reach out on behalf of others. I experience this most often when I deal with our distinguished alumni who give back to so many causes. Today you join a group of alumni who are distinguished not only as leaders, but as philanthropists and energetic civic participants—people who lead and fund countless non-profits and philanthropies. It’s a privilege for me to spend time with these people, because I witness firsthand the palpable joy they feel when they can experience the impact they have on others. So as all of you think about making audacious reaches over the course of your life, I would urge you not just to consider what you can reach for yourselves, but how you might reach out generously on behalf of others as well.
Finally, I ask you to consider a third vital behavior, that of RESPECT.
Show respect on a daily basis to everyone you interact with: your co-workers and customers, your global partners and your local communities, your supporters and your detractors, and especially to those less powerful whose work can sometimes go unnoticed. As leaders, you will often get more credit than you deserve; be sure to share this credit by giving respect to all who contribute to any success. Let me in that spirit take a moment to thank every member of our HBS community—faculty and staff, both those who work front-stage and those who work back-stage—who have collectively helped to educate you and bring you to this wonderful moment of graduation.
In the vein of respect, as you commence life ahead, one of the specific challenges you will face is balancing the demands of your career with the rest of your life. In this arena in particular, I’d urge all of you to respect your loved ones as the priority in your lives. Tom DeLong, one of our senior faculty, uses a metaphor from the world of auto racing to describe a trap we risk falling into. In auto racing, the goal is to run as many laps as quickly as you can. Then, when it’s time to refuel and put new tires on the racecar, the driver pulls off the track to make a pit stop. In auto racing, one of the keys to victory is making quick pit stops. In other words, you need to spend as little time off the track as possible.
As you begin careers that will be challenging and even enthralling, some of you may fall into the trap of treating your work lives like the racetrack, and your home like the pit stop. If you remember nothing else I say to you today, please remember this: Resist that trap. No matter how successful you are in your career, you will never be happy unless you are respecting your loved ones with the gift of your time, your presence, and your full attention, even if it requires you to step away from work at times that are inconvenient.
As each of you think about the best ways to respect the people who are important in your lives, I am sure your thoughts will immediately turn to the family and guests who are celebrating with you as you graduate.
So members of the Class of 2017, let’s take a moment to show this respect. Please stand up and turn towards your guests.
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 and encouraged you. Maybe it was one special individual behind you, or a team. Maybe it was simply someone who believed in you early on.
Please join me in recognizing them and showing them your respect.
The faculty and I join your families, friends, and well-wishers in congratulating you on all you have accomplished during your time with us. We celebrate you, and we wish you good luck as you begin your next adventures. We encourage you to be mindful of your RESPONSIBILITY as leaders at a time when businesses must work to rebuild public trust. We remind you to REACH toward ambitious goals that will help solve society’s most pressing problems. And we ask that you RESPECT the people who are most important in your lives, and everyone with whom you interact along your road to leadership. Remember that nothing can be accomplished without the help of others.
As you begin this exciting journey, I wish you all the best.