Dean Srikant Datar’s 2023 Commencement Remarks

Dean Srikant Datar addresses the MBA and Doctoral Classes of 2023 during the Schools 113th Commencement.

Let me say what a special moment this is. As you may know, I live on campus. For the last few days, as I have been traveling from home to office and back again, Ive seen many of you—usually in 1s, 2,s, or 3s, and oftentimes with family members—trying out your regalia, and getting that perfect photo on the steps of Baker Library. The excitement, for sure, has been building. But as wonderful as that has been, it is truly awe-inspiring, now, to see you all gathered, and I am honored to be standing before you. Its an occasion that will always, always feel extra-ordinary. So:

Members of the MBA and Doctoral Classes of 2023; esteemed Alumni Achievement Award recipients; families, friends, and loved ones; faculty and staff of Harvard Business School:

Welcome. I am delighted we are here, together, on this joyous day. I know I speak on behalf of the entire HBS community when I say to our graduating students and Alumni Achievement Award recipients: congratulations, and bravo.

Before we begin, I would like to ask our students to thank the many people who have supported you during your time at HBS and throughout your lives, and who have made you who you are. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives and partners and children, classmates and friends: They have had your back. So please, stand up and turn around. Take a moment now to show them how much their love mattered to you, and how much they mean to you, and join me in a big and heartfelt collective round of applause.

Years from now, when I reflect on the Class of 2023, what I will remember most is how deeply you connected with one another. When you arrived in Fall 2021, we were slowly emerging from the pandemic. But even testing, masking, and distancing did not stop you from forming deep bonds. Instead, you reveled in the in-person interactions so many of us had missed during the preceding year.

I will never forget the day—March 14th, 2022 to be precise—when masks were no longer required in Harvards classrooms. It was an emotional moment, and I remember seeing many smiles and some tears of joy.

The volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity we lived through—what some call by their acronym, VUCA—have become a signature feature of this era. This is true in geopolitics, in the economy, and in industries. Yesterday, our Class Day speaker Ray McGuire noted the significant challenges and harmful divisions we face and the urgent need for you to play a part in addressing them. As you begin the next phase in your leadership journey, I ask you to join me in reflecting on three behaviors that I hope might be helpful to you as you go about this great task.

They are Active ListeningAnd Thinking, and Acting Courageously.

Active Listening, or listening generously, requires approaching conversations with open-mindedness and a commitment to empathy. Without active listening, one cannot learn; without the ability to learn quickly, one cannot lead in a fast-changing world. Engaging with others and absorbing multiple points of view, particularly those that are different from your own, is the best way to begin to navigate the uncertainties that leaders must manage today, deepen understanding of problems, and provide clarity through thoughtful, considered judgments. This, I think, is what the English philosopher John Stuart Mill meant when he said, He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.

In an increasingly polarized world, open-minded listening can be challenging. When everyone’s beliefs seem set in stone, you can feel reluctant to engage. As leaders, you must overcome this, and instead work to do what my good friend and Harvard Law School Dean John Manning calls “encouraging robust dialogue across differences.” Indeed, you have spent your time at HBS in robust dialogue with classmates and faculty who have different backgrounds, opinions, and beliefs.

In my own leadership journey, I continue to work each day to improve my active listening skills. When I was named dean, I went on a listening tour, eventually meeting with nearly 1,000 students, faculty, staff members, and alumni to understand the challenges and opportunities our institution faces. Beyond taking copious notes, I relied on technology for assistance, using natural language processing to analyze word patterns and common themes. This approach helped complement the impressions I carried of these conversations with data—and ensured I wasn't bringing my own biases to my work.

In your careers, you will rely on new kinds of digital tools to help you in ways we cannot imagine today. But as much as the world is now focused on generative AI as a technology that holds promise to revolutionize the way we work, let’s never forget the role that leaders will continue to play. Even as we deploy powerful new tools, listening actively and openly to others will remain a vital human skill—and the essential duty of every leader.

The second behavior is what I call And ThinkingAnd Thinking refers to a leader’s ability to reject or reframe traditional either/or thinking. Many of the choices we make are assumed to be binary—A or B. Does a CEO prioritize employee needs or shareholder returns? Does a manager rely on empowerment or control? And Thinking urges a leader to first think innovatively and creatively about ways to support both employees and shareholders, and to design controls that encourage empowerment.

Design thinking teaches us that the best decisions often result when we reject either/or choices and instead reframe, combine, or integrate ideas. It can be hard to cultivate this mindset, but those who are able to do it often spot very large opportunities.

A leader who exemplifies the power of And Thinking is Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. Under his leadership, Microsoft has routinely worked with rival companies in one part of its business while competing with them in others. Nadella oversees teams creating technologies that can extract powerful new insights from personal data—while also serving as a vocal advocate for data protection and privacy rights. He thinks of the benefits of technology and its consequences on people. And even while leading a company filled with highly educated scientists and engineers, he has created a culture where world-class experts know a lot and recognize how much they still have to learn.

Leaders who embrace And Thinking have a unique ability to navigate in a world filled with complexity and contradictions. And Thinking does not mean that leaders never need to think critically. They inevitably do. Instead, it urges leaders to first think more expansively, openly, and innovatively to integrate opposing viewpoints.

Once a leader has actively listened to different viewpoints and explored creative ways to reframe either/or choices, it becomes time to engage in the third vital behavior: to Act Courageously. It is too easy to wait until there's more information, to want more market research, or to be paralyzed by uncertainty and ambiguity. Leaders rarely have this luxury.

That’s why, in the case discussions that are the central component of the education we offer at Harvard Business School, professors have asked you to articulate and support a point of view—and we hope this is a habit you have internalized.

Jeff Bezos sometimes talks about what he calls the 70 percent rule: that it might seem wise for leaders to wait until they are 90 percent certain when making a decision. Doing that usually involves waiting too long and acting too slowly. That’s why Bezos says leaders must become comfortable acting courageously even when they are only 70 percent certain.

Acting boldly and courageously is rarely easy. It requires becoming comfortable with four different ways of operating.

First, courageous leaders overcome loss aversion. Research has shown that humans feel the pain of loss more acutely than the joy of success. This can cause us to be more comfortable with inaction, and to rationalize preserving the status quo. Courageous leaders work to become reflexively excited about the upside.

Second, they learn to cope with failure when it happens. They see failure not as something that weighs them down, but as something that teaches them valuable lessons.

Third, they think of their organization ahead of themselves. It is never about them. They are willing to take the blame when things don’t work out—and give credit to others when they do.

Fourth, whenever an idea is presented to them, courageous leaders make it bigger and bolder. Smaller ideas may be easier to implement, but they rarely amount to much. Making ideas bigger infuses organizations with energy and impels them to move forward purposefully.

Today we are fortunate to be joined on stage by our five Alumni Achievement Award recipients. Their backgrounds and career paths are very different, but as a group, they have something in common: at decisive moments in their lives, each acted courageously.

Reshma Kewalramani acted courageously by leaving a career in medicine to join the biotechnology firm Vertex, where she led teams to make innovative medicines that treat chronic diseases like cystic fibrosis.

Amid a busy career, Depelsha McGruder acted courageously to launch Moms of Black Boys United to celebrate the contributions of, and give opportunities to, Black boys and men.

For Raymond McGuire, acts of courage include pursuing a career in investment banking at a time when there were no role models who looked like him, and quitting his job to run for mayor of New York City.

As the prime minister of Greece after the 2008 Financial Crisis, Antonis Samaras acted courageously to address his country’s debt crisis by raising taxes and cutting spending—never a popular path.

And Stephen Schwarzman acted courageously in cofounding Blackstone, a pioneer in the fields of private equity and alternative asset management that today delivers income to millions of people.

Class of 2023, as you look at the distinguished alumni on this stage, I hope you feel not only inspiration, but also confidence. As you begin this next step in your careers, rest assured: despite their impressive achievements, you are every bit as prepared as they were when they occupied the seats in which you now sit.

Our incredible faculty taught them—and you—to engage in Active Listening, to keep an open mind, to understand and debate opposing viewpoints, and to build on each other’s ideas.

Their time at Harvard Business School showed them—and you—how to reframe problems using And Thinking, to be innovative and avoid quickly falling back on either/or thinking, and to embrace complexity when solving problems.

The time they spent on this campus taught them—and you—that there comes a moment when the analysis must end so that one can Act Courageously and decide—the behavior that is the hallmark of leadership.

Looking around the world today, I recognize the challenges that are facing you. As an optimist, I see this as a moment of great opportunity. During my lifetime, business has been an engine of prosperity in countries around the globe. It has lifted millions out of poverty and brought vital services and products to markets and people in ways that have enhanced their lives. Capitalism remains a system that—at its best—serves the best interests of society and spurs innovation. Even as we face challenges, I believe business can and will play a leadership role in devising solutions to society’s most urgent problems.

When I talk about leadership generally, I am talking about you specifically. I have great optimism for the ways in which you will embody our mission as leaders who make a difference in the world and by doing so leave the world in a better place.

As you do so, I want to return to what I said when I first welcomed you to campus in August 2021: never lose sight of the basics.

  • Act with integrity, empathy, and humility.

  • As yesterdays other Class Day speaker, Adán Acavedo, reminded us so powerfully yesterday, treat those who you lead—individuals striving to improve their lives and the lives of their families—with respect;

  • don’t forget to hold the door open for others; and

  • take every opportunity to create purpose and meaning—in your life, and for others.

I know I speak on behalf of our entire community when I say how proud we are of you, and what high hopes we have for you. Congratulations and all our very best! Thank you very much for your kind attention.