Commencement 2019 Address

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As prepared by Dean Nitin Nohria, May 30, 2019

Graduates of the Class of 2019, friends and family, and members of the Harvard Business School community: Good afternoon and welcome.

Commencement is perhaps the best day in academic life. It marks the culmination of years of hard work. It is a moment of true celebration for the entire HBS community, as is evident in the spirit you feel on our campus today.

Class of 2019, I hope you feel prepared for the challenges that lie ahead of you. The world is asking for a new and different type of business leadership today than it has in the past. Around the globe, people are wrestling with growing inequality, increasing divisiveness, and the rising threat of systemic challenges such as climate change. They are living with the terrifying insecurity that their jobs may vanish and their communities may disintegrate. Faced with troubles that seem to be getting worse every year, people are losing trust in existing institutions and their leaders. Capitalism, a system that has brought prosperity to so many, over such long periods of time, across so many nations, has come under mounting scrutiny. Today, business leaders too often are viewed as being driven primarily by their own narrow self-interests rather than by the broader interests of society.

You, Class of 2019, must do all you can to turn this tide. Of course, we want you to succeed, and to realize your personal ambitions and aspirations. We want you to run businesses that grow and are profitable. But you can’t leave society behind. You must lead your lives and your businesses to serve society: to provide wages that enable people to live with economic dignity, to marshal disaster relief when needed, to devise solutions for our health care challenges, to drive improvements in education, to invest in reskilling the workforce, to foster a culture of inclusion and belonging, and to develop innovative ways to combat climate change.

We are relying on you to restore society’s trust in business and its leaders.

Today I would like to share with you three leadership qualities that may be helpful in rebuilding this trust. They are Inspiration, Integrity, and Impact.

Let’s start with Inspiration.

The essence of leadership is to mobilize a group of people to do great things together. People can be forced to do some things through coercion or by incentives such as compensation. But to get them to give you all of their minds, hearts, and souls, you have to inspire them.

What leads someone to be inspiring?

People are inspired by those who demonstrate courage, by those who are more interested in others than self-interested, and by those who are motivated by a cause that is larger than themselves. We are inspired by those who create a collective sense of mission and purpose. We are inspired by people who connect with us in a deep or profound way. We are inspired by those who bring a passion to their work and ask us to do the same, who challenge us to reach for and achieve goals we could have never imagined.

Among our thousands of alumni, we have many examples of such people. Yesterday, at our Class Day, we were fortunate to honor five of them.

Marla Beck inspires us by turning Bluemercury into a retailer that found a novel way to meet its customers’ needs, and by showing a deep concern for her employees’ wellbeing.

Michael Bloomberg inspires us by building a great information services company, and for his doggedness in taking on a wide range of social causes.

Michael Mullen inspires us by his determination to combat terrorism, and for his resolve in making the military more inclusive to all.

Tracy Palandjian inspires us by creating financial innovations that can drive social change, and by encouraging us to look beyond profit to measure impact.

Álvaro Rodríguez inspires us by funding local entrepreneurs in Mexico, and by helping to grow that country’s emerging middle class.

The work of these five leaders could hardly be more different. But the common thread is that they think not only of themselves or their organizations. Instead, they think about a larger purpose. Each day, they serve society. Each day, they make a difference in the world.

Members of the Class of 2019, each of you will choose your own unique path, whether it is investing, or advising, or operating an existing business or launching something new—or doing something much further afield. Whichever path you choose, we hope you will work every day in a manner that inspires others.

Let us now consider a second leadership quality than can help to rebuild trust: Integrity.

When I teach leadership, I often talk about two qualities: Competence and Character. Consider this question for a moment: If you had to have a lapse in one of these areas, which would you choose?

All of us, from time to time, will have lapses of competence. It is impossible to get every decision right. Even the best investors, for example, make some terrible mistakes. Although such errors are never to be taken lightly, you can recover from lapses in competence—as long as you don’t make it a habit.

Lapses of character are far more costly. It is tempting to think that you can get away with the half-truth, the occasional straying over the line, the zigs and zags away from your own espoused values or those of your organization. But these lapses inevitably accumulate and catch up with you. Even if they are not discovered by others, they will make your own achievements seem hollow. When character lapses are discovered by others, the consequences are devastating. They destroy careers, damage firms, and add a significant dent in society’s trust in business and its leaders.

It is easy these days to find headlines, news stories, documentaries, and films that feature lapses in the integrity of business leaders. We have fewer role models of integrity—of people who were willing to make the hard call when integrity was called for.

So, let me issue all of you a challenge today: As you move into leadership roles, and as your duties call on you to make decisions that test your integrity, imagine yourself as the protagonist in a case study. Imagine a future generation of students sitting in Aldrich, debating whether you did the right thing. Imagine the criticisms these students might have, and then make decisions that exemplify integrity—choices that future generations of students will want to emulate, and will respect.

Beyond your own integrity, make sure to cultivate a culture of integrity in your organization. The strength of institutions depends on the integrity not just of those at the top, but of people throughout the organization.

Someone who exemplifies this integrity at HBS is Coral Sullivan, our registrar. Before we hand you a degree and allow you to call yourself a graduate, we require you to complete a long and complex list of courses and to achieve certain grades. As our Registrar, Coral is the one who ensures the integrity of this process. That is why, for more than 20 years, Coral has been the one who hands every student their degree on this stage. She makes sure that everyone who gets a degree has earned it.

This afternoon is the last time Coral will perform this task. This summer, she will retire. I ask you all to join me in thanking her for her years of service in ensuring the integrity of all we do at Harvard Business School.

The final quality I ask you to reflect on this afternoon is Impact.

Impact is the measurable sum of your work: the value you create; the products you bring to market; the people you hire, mentor, and develop; the customers, employees, investors, and communities whose lives you enrich.

As you work toward these goals, however, never forget about the very human impact you are having on others. Are you leading in a way that makes them feel respected? Cared for? Listened to?

Business school graduates tend to be ambitious and talented, and as a result, they tend to advance quickly into leadership roles. For some, the downside is that colleagues can experience them as overly focused on their own upward journey. I urge you to avoid leaving that impression. Seek to connect. Demonstrate caring. Be a resource to the people around you. Aspire to become what Adam Grant calls a “Giver” rather than a “Taker.” Judge yourself not only on the business impact you have, but on the human impact you have on those around you each day.

This sense that businesses and their leaders can and should have a positive impact on others is one of my most deeply-held beliefs. I developed this sensibility by watching my father, who is in the audience today. Some of you may have heard me share this example before, because it’s such an essential part of my life story.

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, in temperatures that would routinely reach 110 degrees in the summertime. My father willed his way to get an engineering degree, and then to go abroad to study business. Upon returning to India, he eventually became CEO of a company whose mission was to advance the electrification of India.

My father found this work deeply meaningful because his firm transformed the lives of people across the country—bringing to them the electricity he had lacked as a child. Impressive as that was, I was always more inspired by the impact my father had on his employees. He loved to walk the factory floor, to travel with colleagues, to attend the weddings of their children, to visit them when they were recovering from an illness. The personal impact he had on them became evident last year, when my mother passed away. It had been more than 15 years since my father left his company, yet hundreds of former colleagues came out to join him in mourning. Their numbers provided a visual reminder that a leader’s impact can go far beyond profits or products, and should also be measured in the connections made with others.

As we anticipate the lives you will lead when you depart this campus, I can only hope your time here has had a transformative impact on you and that you leave feeling ready to have an equally transformative impact on others.

Today is also a moment to celebrate the impact that so many others have had on your lives. None of what you have accomplished would be possible without the strong support you’ve received from others—the husbands, wives, and partners; the parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins; the friends, coworkers, teachers, and mentors—all the people who have nurtured you, encouraged you, and believed in you.

Please join me in giving them a hand once more.

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 the very best as you begin your next adventures. We encourage you to lead with inspiration, integrity, and impact. Help restore society’s trust in business. Be guided by the mission of Harvard Business School: use your education to make a difference in the world.

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 the very best as you begin your next adventures. We encourage you to lead with inspiration, integrity, and impact. Help restore society’s trust in business. Be guided by the mission of Harvard Business School: use your education to make a difference in the world.