Dean Srikant Datar’s 2024 Commencement Remarks

Dean Srikant Datar addresses the MBA and Doctoral Classes of 2024 during the School’s 114th Commencement.

Members of the MBA and Doctoral Classes of 2024; esteemed Alumni Achievement Award recipients; families, friends and loved ones; faculty and staff of Harvard Business School: Welcome. I am delighted to be here with you on this joyous day. I speak on behalf of the entire HBS community when I say to our graduating students and Alumni Achievement Award recipients: Congratulations and well done!

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

I’ve had the privilege of watching many classes walk across this stage. Each class is truly memorable—distinguished by some special aspect of their time here on campus.

When I consider you, the Class of 2024, I will remember your efforts to sustain community and build understanding at a very difficult time in the world. Some of you have been deeply affected by the October 7 attacks and disturbing acts of antisemitism globally in the months since. Some of you have been deeply affected by the war between Israel and Hamas and the humanitarian crisis and death toll in Gaza that has ensued. At a time when our campus could have been badly divided, you instead sought ways to develop empathy and preserve the ties that make this community so special. You also came together to learn. As a result, I was honored to recognize the key leaders of two student clubs, the Jewish Student Association and the Middle East and North Africa Club, with Dean’s Awards yesterday. Whatever you were managing individually, collectively, you—and they—supported those who needed help. As Desiree Rogers said yesterday, you don’t need to wait to become a leader, to lead. You demonstrated that beautifully during your time at HBS. I know this was not easy and I am grateful.

I also think about the time when you began the MBA program, in Fall 2022. Matt Weinzierl and Mitch Weiss, our faculty chairs, introduced a phrase that they hoped would provide an easy shorthand of our expectations and aspirations for you. They put it on banners, which we hung on your Aldrich classroom walls: Hard Work, with Humility, for Humanity.

Today, I ask you to join me in reflecting on these words one more time—how they have influenced your time at Harvard Business School and how they might continue to provide guidance as you begin the next phase of your professional life.

Let’s start by looking back.

I see hard work, with humility, for humanity as the human dimensions that bring to life our mission of “educating leaders who make a difference in the world.” “Educating leaders” requires humility: we cannot educate unless you have a learning mindset, and you cannot have a learning mindset unless you have humility. “Making a difference” is not easy; it requires hard work. “In the world” means “for humanity”—changing people’s lives, and society more generally, for the better.

We hope your time at Harvard Business School has increased your capacity for and appreciation of hard work. Your memories of your MBA experience undoubtedly include late nights as you prepared cases, polished presentations, wrote papers, or completed team projects. Although some people may be born with a solid work ethic, most of us learn it, and we do so by striving to meet high standards consistently. I know many of you occasionally wondered “Can I do this?” during your first semester. Your presence here today is proof that persistence and resilience—attributes that will be important throughout your life—have served you well.

We hope your classroom experiences have increased your ability to feel and demonstrate humility. The case method is especially helpful in this regard: it teaches you how to think, not what to think. It educates for judgment by reminding us, each day, how much we don’t know. I believe the most important lesson the case method teaches is this: in most situations, the surest route to being an effective leader is to be the one who listens intently, exhibits curiosity, and remains open to arguments that might change your point of view. These behaviors all require humility.

We hope that during your time as students, you’ve become more aware of how management decisions impact humanity. As managers and leaders, we serve a constellation of stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors, and suppliers. Part of the challenge of being a manager is handling the competing priorities among these groups. As you have heard me say before, I believe business is a powerful force for good in society—lifting millions of people out of poverty and providing valuable products and services that have improved standards of living around the world. Across all your courses, you’ve had to consider how you, too, can be a leader who serves humanity.

In your final moments as students at Harvard Business School, I now ask you to look forward and consider how you will instill Hard Work, with Humility, for Humanity in the organizations you will lead.

How do you get an organization to embrace hard work? Some leaders do it by setting a pace themselves and hoping others race to match it. Some leaders do it by focusing on culture—hiring the right people, celebrating certain behaviors, and establishing norms that communicate “this is the way we do things.” Some leaders do it by relying on incentives. As you think about the best way to ensure your team or organization is working hard, I’d urge you to consider which methods scale well in the modern workplace, and which will not.

Let me give you an example. We used to talk about “managing by walking around.” This informal way of managing through observation and casual interaction relied on a simple premise: that workers were physically together and in an office. Workforces today, though, can be remote or hybrid, and many are global, making this approach infeasible and ineffective.

Leading in this environment requires more reliance on culture and trust. Managers will need to make employees feel empowered and supported. Managers will need to ensure workers are using the new capabilities of AI to leverage their capabilities and expertise. And managers will need to build teams in which people are judged on the outcomes and outputs of their work, rather than whether they appear busy.

Of course, managers also must be attentive to new downsides, including the risk of burnout—ensuring that employees aren’t working too much, and that even in a performance-driven culture that emphasizes hard work, they maintain time for activities that will ensure a healthy personal and professional balance. This is true for you as well.

When I think of leaders who have energized an organization to embrace hard work, I think of two of our alumni leaders at JP Morgan Chase: Jamie Dimon and Mary Erdoes. There is no question that, even against the standards of Wall Street, people at this organization work extremely hard, and that’s by design: Jamie and Mary are unapologetic about the reality that success in their industry requires it. Yet both also spend many hours mentoring subordinates, setting the next generation of leaders up for success. And they each display deep devotion to their families and are active in their communities. As you think about how you as a leader will instill hard work in your organization, there’s much you can learn from Jamie and Mary.

Next, how do you get an organization to behave with humility?

You do it by emphasizing that even successful organizations rarely know all the answers. You do it by recognizing that the strategies that made you successful in the past won’t guarantee success in the future. You do it by creating an organization that’s hungry to learn, that invests in innovation to find new answers to old problems, and that is open to ideas and input from everyone on the team, no matter their rank or status.

Although some may not immediately associate Harvard Business School as an exemplar of humility, everything we do is rooted in that quality. In our classrooms, we encourage students to talk more than the faculty. Our research is done out in the field, and predicated on observing innovative practices and learning from real-life managers. And although we will always be proud of the methods we’ve used to teach students for more than a century, we remain open to completely new ways of teaching and learning—an openness that’s allowed innovations such as HBS Online and the FIELD program over the last decade, and that’s enabled us to embrace the promise of AI to enhance rather than diminish teaching and learning.

When I think of leaders who have imbued a large organization with a sense of humility, I think of Warren Buffett. His annual shareholder letters are self-effacing, often reflecting on his poor decisions instead of his successes. The important lesson is this: leaders and organizations will make mistakes, and it is humility that allows them to learn from them.

In his personal life, Buffett remains a model of humility. Despite his wealth and fame, he has lived in the same modest Omaha home for nearly 70 years, drives a 10-year-old car, and generally shuns the limelight. Erik Roberts advised you eloquently yesterday to be generous. Buffett has been a true model of generosity, too. Together with Bill and Melinda French Gates, he founded The Giving Pledge, encouraging the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

Finally, how do you get an organization to show concern for humanity?

You do it by emphasizing the organization’s larger purpose and mission. You do it by holding everyone to high ethical standards. You do it by treating employees with honesty and respect. You do it by focusing on your customers, by making sure that in every decision, you are thinking of how they will be affected by what you do. You do it by taking actions that increase the trust that society places on your business.

I would also urge you to focus on a core principle of design thinking, which is “and” rather than “or” thinking—in other words, searching expansively for creative and novel solutions rather than reflexively choosing among either/or decisions.

“And” thinking will allow you to build organizations that serve humanity and operate profitably—in the words of our first Dean, Edwin Gay, organizations that make “a decent profit, decently.” “And” thinking will allow you to embrace technology and do good for humanity. This is what our alum Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, did during COVID when he developed a platform that helped quickly identify the best ways of making a vaccine and is now using a similar approach to treat cancer. Another alum, Sal Khan, who launched Khan Academy, used AI to create a tutorbot for millions of children who do not have the opportunity or privilege of getting help when they need it and would otherwise be left behind.

Of course, we must also avoid the downsides of technology and its negative effects, including bias, privacy, jobs, and security. But I believe organizations can reap the benefits of technology and help humanity.

Stephane and Sal are vivid examples of how hard work with humility for humanity can make a difference in the world. Barely two decades ago, they sat where you sit today. I am sure neither knew at that time what the future would bring. But I am also certain they left this institution believing in the power of business and organizations to transform lives. This is true of you as well.

Today, in the face of challenges such as climate change, social and economic inequality, political partisanship, and geopolitical polarization, we need to build resilient organizations for the long term. We need leaders like you who can imbue the values of hard work, humility, and humanity as necessary foundations for such organizations.

There are no better exemplars of hard work with humility for humanity than the five recipients of this year’s alumni achievement award—Peter Crisp, John Hess, Desirée Rogers, Gerald Schwartz, and Gwill York—who we will celebrate in just a moment.

Harvard Business School was founded in 1908 in response, at least in part, to a question put to Harvard’s president amid tumultuous times in a challenging world: “Can Harvard University do anything of a systemic sort to provide from year to year a few young [people] who grow into leaders wanted?” Today, 116 years later, our purpose—our reason for being—remains to train the hard working and humble leaders that the world needs.

Let me end my commencement address by returning to what I said when I first welcomed you to campus in Fall 2022. I hope you will never lose sight of the basics:

Act with integrity, empathy, and humility.

Treat those who you lead with respect.

Don’t forget to hold the door open for others.

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. We offer you congratulations and our very best wishes. Thank you very much.