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Remembering SEI’s Founding Dean: John McArthur (MBA 1959, DBA 1963)

By: Laura Moon 03 Oct 2019

The Letter that Launched SEI

“This just arrived. I think you should read it.” 

As John McArthur told the story, this is what his executive assistant Phyllis Mahoney said when she interrupted him in a Dean’s Office meeting in 1992 to deliver a letter—one that would lead to the creation of the Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI), and ultimately change the trajectory of the School and an untold number of lives. The process that unfolded between this day and the founding of the Social Enterprise Initiative in 1993 speaks volumes about the magic of Dean Emeritus John H. McArthur (March 31, 1934 – August 20, 2019).

The letter in question was from John C. Whitehead (MBA 1947). Dean McArthur continued with his meeting until Mahoney came in again asking, “Have you read it yet?” and, with a bit more persistence, she reportedly said, “I think you ought to read it.” Once he read the letter, McArthur pursued a somewhat unconventional path in response to the $10 million donation proposed by Whitehead to create an effort at HBS focused on nonprofit management and leadership. McArthur responded to Whitehead’s proposal by saying that he could not move forward until he had was able to put in place the right team to lead the effort. Needless to say, this was not the answer that Whitehead had been anticipating. It took McArthur approximately two years to move forward on this proposed gift (awaiting the unfolding of certain tenure decisions). He knew that, in order for the effort to succeed, it needed dedicated champions from within the faculty and that, in order for it to be sustained, it needed to be led by tenured faculty members. And, they had to be the right ones.

Because of McArthur’s philosophy around faculty development during the prior ten years of his deanship, he knew precisely who those people were. They were the ones with whom he’d had prior review discussions in which he would present feedback only to discover that the guidance embedded within the feedback did not line up with the things that the individual cared most about. In those discussions, McArthur would shift gears and say, “Do you want to know what I think?” From there, he would provide permission to ignore some of the feedback, suggesting instead that, “In life, you have to work on things that interest you; not the things that interest deans or others.” As Dean, he encouraged faculty members to pursue their passions, even when (and perhaps, especially when) fellow colleagues and “the establishment” discouraged such actions.

A License to Create Something

Once the Social Enterprise Initiative was formally launched under the leadership of faculty co-chairs Jim Austin and Kash Rangan and administrative director Bob Burakoff, McArthur provided them “a license to create something.” He realized that the answers were not immediately apparent but rather would need to be discovered over the first few years (and beyond). He also realized that this discovery process had an unusual combination of ingredients that would strengthen it over the long term—commitment and expertise from a variety of angles encompassing faculty, administrative, donor/alumni, and practitioner perspectives.

Fast forward to 2019….As SEI commemorated its 25th anniversary this past spring, McArthur reflected on the founding days of the Initiative. He reiterated that his aim as Dean had been to “listen” and “try to discover” what people wanted to do so that he could help unleash their creativity. “We have to keep bringing in new things—entirely new things—that, for the most part, aren’t strongly supported at the beginning,” he noted. “It takes an extra amount of courage to start down a path like that. Usually it’s the young people that do that.” 

Lessons Learned

There was a reason John McArthur loved to re-tell the founding story of the Social Enterprise Initiative. Within it resided many fundamental truths and lessons to guide us going forward.

  • Patience — tempting as the most direct path may be, sometimes one may have work to do before being ready to garner the desired benefits of this route. McArthur knew that the SEI experiment required strong, credible leadership in order to ensure enduring impact. 
  • Trust — never underestimate the power that a genuine sense of trust and shared humanity can provide. The trust that existed between McArthur and Whitehead enabled the flexibility to structure the timing and nature of the initial donation for long-term benefit. 
  • Courage — to maintain the relevance of the Initiative (and of the School), we need to continually invest in people and provide encouragement and license to pursue roads less traveled (even if existing norms, structures, and systems may discourage such actions). 

McArthur is remembered by so many of us for his genuine care, his extraordinary investment in people (regardless of their position), his eminent kindness, and his contagious and principled belief that bringing out the best in each of us is one of the most noble callings.

Impact that Lasts a Lifetime

As one who has been lucky enough to know John McArthur my entire life, I think about the different ways I knew him over the years. As a child, I knew him for his kindness and his warmth. As I got older, I knew him as one of my dad’s most trusted colleagues, one who was unlike any other. When our family dinner conversations involved my dad talking about “McArthur,” the energy seemed to pick up a notch—seeing the gleam in my father’s eye, noticing the importance he placed on their shared work, and sensing the unspoken but profound love and respect that each of my parents so clearly felt toward him. I have had the incredible privilege over these last 14 years to have gotten to know John as a mentor and a colleague. Since I joined HBS as the director of the Social Enterprise Initiative in 2005 and as I moved into new roles, he became one of my most trusted advisors—the one to whom I’d turn when I needed to sort through the thorniest of issues. I learned quickly that having breakfast with John meant you needed to block your calendar for the entire morning. There was no such thing as a one-hour meeting with John McArthur—there was always too much ground to cover, too many probing questions to be asked, and too many stories to share (always loaded with lessons that you had to discern on your own) to fit within such fabricated time constraints. 

Those of us involved with SEI today stand on the shoulders of giants. We owe it to future generations to carry forward the wisdom and insights of those who came before us so that we are able to adapt to the requirements of each moment in history and to provide a strong foundation for the next generation. John McArthur taught us, among many things, that an endless optimism in the power of human creativity combined with unfailing integrity is our best path forward to make the world a better place.

Laura Moon is Managing Director of the HBS Initiatives.