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Running for President

Running for Section President is a rewarding experience. Most of the activities are behind-the-scenes, but if you’re dedicated to making sure your Section experience runs smoothly for your classmates, this is the job for you.

One of the great things about HBS is that everyone is a leader in their own way. Each of your classmates is both interested in, and qualified to be, a leader.

For that reason, I think that the role of Section President should probably be called Section Facilitator – because in essence, that’s your primary responsibility. As President, you will lead discussions during Section meetings, oversee and help out the other officers with whatever they need, interface with the administration, and work with the other Presidents to exchange stories about what works best to keep your sections functioning at a high level.

Most likely, after a long, expensive, grueling campaign (a 60-second speech and $0.50 to print a humorous position paper), you’ll be elected in a landslide (actually, after two run-off elections and by a margin of 2%). The most important aspect of your job is simply to make sure that your Section-mates have the best experience possible.

If you’re thinking about running for President for resume reasons or some perceived sense of glory – forgettaboutit. The following is an unlikely scenario:

“Max really bombed that interview,” mused a shockingly non-bankrupt potential employer. “He seems like a nice kid, but I just don’t think he’s the right fit for the company.” “I thought so at first, also,” replied the HR person. “But I checked his resume again – and it says here he was the President of his Section.”

The interviewer jumped out of his chair. “Section President? Really? Get him on the phone right away; I want him working with us this summer!”

Of course, being Section President can also be a lot of fun. One of the best parts about this role is that you get to plan the Section Olympics, which take place in May every year. Each Section takes on all the others in a variety of very serious contests, such as the dizzy bat race, tug-of-war, dodgeball, and of course, the twinkie eating competition. Rumor has it that three years ago an actual certified world record was set during that last event, but no one in my Section will ever forget Jisun Park and Alan Zhou – with a combined weight of about 220 pounds, dripping wet – eating 29.5 of the 30 twinkies in a matter of minutes, with Jisun doing the majority of the work.
Each of the Presidents is assigned a specific event for which to make the rules and officiate, and hopefully you future Presidents will do a better job than me. Having previously applied (and failed) to get a job with ESPN8, “The Ocho,” I took on the responsibility of planning and executing the Dodgeball competition for the Olympics. Let’s just say, if someone ever asks you, “Do you want to borrow the bullhorn?” as you’re jogging over to start trying to give instructions to 300 people spread over three basketball courts, the correct answer is NOT “No, I think I can handle it without one.” Thankfully, at the end of the day I was only hit in the head by flying dodge balls twice, and I’m pretty sure only one of those throws was malicious on account of my poor officiating. Nobody makes me bleed my own blood. Nobody!

Most of the President’s work is behind-the-scenes. Some of my biggest value addition has come from cleaning up our Section room after reunion events to make sure we don’t get charged a “cleanup fee” (apparently that, too, is not included in tuition). In fact, since apart from leading Section meetings most of your responsibilities won’t make front page news, be prepared to endure endless mockery about your lack of activities. In my case, one member of my section who will remain nameless to protect the guilty – seems to be keeping a diary of how many hours he believes I am engaged in “Presidential” activities. Of course, continually airing this to the Section might just be because he thinks he’s the next Last Comic Standing. In reality, he’s a semi-finalist at best.
In all seriousness, one of the most rewarding parts of this job was exemplified by an incident that took place after our charity auction. Every Section I member contributed heavily in soliciting auction items as well as opening their wallets (four misguided souls even paid for poker lessons from me!), and we raised an astounding $65,000 for two charities that we selected via a vote. The two organizations that we committed to held special relevance and personal ties to members of our Section, but unfortunately the Sichuan Earthquake erupted a few days later.

Some of the Chinese students requested that we transfer $2,000 of our funds to the Earthquake Relief. Despite a section-wide vote overwhelmingly approving the measure, one of the chosen charity champions made the good point that we had already agreed to donate a certain amount, and it wouldn’t be right to just take those funds back from other worthwhile causes.

There were a few ways to handle this situation. The section had voted to donate to the Chinese efforts and we could have followed that decision without further discussion, but that path would have resulted in this member of the section feeling as if his (very valid!) opinion didn’t count. We could have gone to another vote in the section with the champion reiterating that we had already committed the funds, but that too would have resulted in a messy, confusing situation causing dissension among the group. Instead, my role was to get all the parties together and moderate a discussion about the pros and cons of the situation facing us. I presented an argument that enabled each stakeholder to look at the situation differently, and we eventually reached a compromise that left everyone feeling like their concerns had been heard, the will of the section had been realized, and every involved organization received their fair share.

If I had to run for President again, would I do so? Absolutely. It hasn’t been an easy job, and it might not be the most appreciated activity, but I enjoy doing my part to help create an environment where everyone feels like they can be themselves, and speak comfortably about any concerns they may have. Of course, it’s also pretty clear that I didn’t make a very good Athletic Rep, as my (mis-)management of our flag football team prior to our election of a real Athletic Rep showed.

Section I, without a doubt, would still be the best Section without me in the role of facilitator. But I’ve been fortunate to be involved with many aspects of Section administration, and it’s not often that you’re able to see the complex dynamics up close of a group of 90 very successful, capable people. It’s been an honor to be a Section President, and has certainly enriched my HBS experience.

September 22, 2008
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