Commencement 2018 Address

Video thumbnail
Play

As prepared by Dean Nitin Nohria, 24 May 2018

Class of 2018, friends and family, and members of the Harvard Business School community: Good afternoon and welcome.

Each year, I look forward to Commencement—the culmination of years of hard work, the realization of a dream, and a moment of true celebration, as evident in the joyous spirit you feel on our campus today.

In keeping with my affection for alliteration, I pick a letter of the alphabet so that I might share with you some reflections on three leadership virtues that begin with that letter. In considering these choices, I try to think about leadership qualities that are both timely and timeless.

To reflect the tumultuous time in which we are living, and a world that is clamoring for better leadership, this year I chose the letter E. It is a letter that spells an abundance of leadership virtues—some are probably already running through your mind: Endurance. Enthusiasm. Excellence. Eloquence. Equanimity. Ethics.

These are all important qualities; yet I am going to focus my remarks on Enterprise, Energy, and Empathy.

Let’s start with Enterprise.

When we speak of Enterprise, particularly at a business school, we often use it as a noun—meaning a collection of people, who come together for a common purpose, to create something of value. We take this coming-together process for granted, but when you pause and think about it, the economic enterprise is among the most extraordinary social inventions. It emerges through the will of an individual who has to mobilize others—employees, customers, and investors--to join. The enterprise grows as it creates value, it adapts and evolves, and, when it stops creating value, it eventually dies. This spirit of enterprise is at the core of any vibrant capitalist system, and we should cherish it. At a time when people are losing trust in the role of business enterprise in society, it is your job to restore their confidence in this engine of human prosperity.

You should also embrace the word enterprise as an adjective: live a life that is enterprising. Be resourceful, be willing to take on projects of importance and difficulty, be courageous to do things that have not been done before.

Among the countless examples of people who exemplify this quality of Enterprise, one has deep personal significance to me. It is the example of my father, Kewal Nohria, who is with us today.

My father grew up in a small village in India that lacked electricity. He learned to read by candlelight in a home that had no fans, let alone air-conditioning, that would routinely reach 110 degrees in the summertime. An enterprising man, he was the first in his family to get an engineering degree, to go abroad for additional graduate business education, and then return to India to pursue a business career. His enterprising character enabled him to eventually become CEO of a company whose mission was to advance the electrification of India. He found a profound sense of purpose in his work and a deep appreciation for how the enterprise he was leading could create meaningful jobs for its employees and good returns for its investors, while changing the lives of its customers. Just earlier this year, my father and I had the great satisfaction of being together when the newspapers announced that all of India’s villages were finally electrified.

My father showed me the difference that enterprising leaders can make and helped me find my calling in educating business leaders like you. As all of you consider the careers that lie ahead of you, I hope you approach your work with this spirit of enterprise—and that it provides you the same sense of purpose and satisfaction.

Let us now consider the second E in my trilogy: Energy.

During my career as a professor, and now as Dean, I have been privileged to meet many extraordinary leaders. When I do, I am always struck by the energy they exude. A leader’s energy is contagious. We all know the people who suck the energy out of you and those who fill you up with energy. Resolve to emulate leaders whose energy not only fuels them, but also fuels others.

When I think of individuals who demonstrate this special kind of Energy, I am reminded of Jim Cash, who was the head of our MBA program when I joined the school 30 years ago. As many of you experienced this year, we tend to have long winters in Boston. To celebrate the much-awaited arrival of spring, Jim used to organize a Springfest.

The highlight of this event was a dunk tank. For those of you who have never seen a dunk tank, picture a large transparent tank of water with a person perched on a platform on the top. If you hit a target on the tank by throwing a baseball, it triggers a mechanism that drops the person into the water.

Now picture Jim—a one-time NBA player who realized that he risked spending more time on the bench than on the floor. An equally good example of being enterprising, he pivoted to an academic career and became the first African American professor to gain tenure at HBS.

This extraordinary man, dressed in a three-piece suit, would climb onto the dunk tank. Any student had three throws to drop him into the water. I was standing watching this spectacle with some students I had just taught. I’m not sure quite how it happened, but my students goaded me up to the line to take a turn.

For a new untenured professor, this presented quite a dilemma. I locked eyes with Jim, and the energy I got back was clear: “Give it your best shot.” I had played some cricket as a teenager, and as I reared back to throw, the muscle memory kicked in. I got lucky and dunked Jim with my first ball. Ordinarily, that would be the end of my turn. But now it was Jim who goaded me on: “I dare you to do that again!” So, I threw again, and, believe it or not, dunked him a second time. The crowd thought this was hysterical, but the person who was laughing hardest of all was Jim.

That episode, a vivid illustration of how Jim created energy, was the start of an amazing relationship. Jim became a wonderful mentor and friend, someone who I could always turn to for advice or help. Even now, I leave every meeting with Jim feeling buoyant, like I have been lifted up. And I have learned over the years that this is what Jim’s energy does for hundreds of other people.

At a time when there is so much negative energy in the world, I encourage you to be like Jim. Engage others with positive energy!

The final quality I ask you to reflect on this afternoon is Empathy. It is a quality that is particularly important right now, in a world that is so deeply divided along so many dimensions.

Empathy is the process of walking in the shoes of others. It requires seeing the world from their eyes, feeling the world from their heart, understanding the world from their mind. Exercising empathy will enable you to develop a richer appreciation for all the people you will need to find common ground with to be a successful leader.

The best way to cultivate empathy is through direct engagement. To truly understand people who are different from you—who grew up in another country or in another part of America or in another religion or in another socioeconomic neighborhood—you have to take the time to meet them where they live.

I learned a lot about empathy last fall, when I accompanied more than a dozen faculty members on a trip to the Golden Triangle region of Mississippi. Most of us had never been to Mississippi. We went there to understand the enterprise and energy that had transformed one of the poorest areas in the country into a vibrant center of advanced manufacturing. When we were discussing the strategy they were using to drive their economic revival, we found lots of common ground—a shared vocabulary of return on investment and what drives sustained competitiveness.

But our meetings also gave us a window into our cultural differences. The people we met wondered if we thought lesser of them because they carried guns and loved to hunt. They described how local churches remained the center of their lives and communities. They shared how their deep connections with their land and their families made it hard for them to simply pick up and move to another place that might have better economic opportunities. They helped us understand how much the hope of decent jobs in their community meant to them. Whatever we thought about the region’s long-term economic prospects, all of us grew to empathize more deeply with the perspective of those who called it their home.

I have experienced other moments of profound empathy here on our campus. At a Black Lives Matter event last year, I heard the stories of our students who reminded us that, fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King, our society continues to be far from inclusive. The #MeToo movement has given us a powerful window into the ways women’s progress in virtually every industry has been impeded by sexual harassment and assault. These examples remind us that empathy isn’t easy, but it is essential. To have empathy, you have to open yourself to be vulnerable—to learn things not just about others, but about yourself, that will make you uncomfortable.

Embrace this vulnerability—empathy will make you a better person, a better leader, and a better citizen.

And now, as you think about your own role models of enterprise, energy, and empathy I ask you to focus on the group of people seated behind you in the audience—your family and guests that have joined us today.

This spring, my family experienced the loss of my mother—a source of boundless energy in our lives. Some of you may have also experienced the painful passage of losing a parent or loved one. You recognize how vital it is to seize opportunities to express your thanks, and your love. This is one such moment.

So, members of the Class of 2018, 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, encouraged you, and believed in you.

Please join me in giving them a hand.

Everyone at HBS joins 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 always consider the mission of Harvard Business School, and to go forth and make a difference in the world.

All the best!!