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HBS Students Must Earn Their “Birthright” To The Top

To the Editor:

Joseph P. Kahn’s September 27 article in the Boston Globe, “Degrees of Discomfort,” is among the most unsettling articles that I’ve read regarding the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Apparently, a wide range of Harvard Business School students now are reconsidering their careers. Some are choosing nonprofit work, but many seem to be choosing against jobs with high profiles, frequent travel, or New York locations. In considering the second group, one can’t help but think of the stark contrast with New York firemen and police officers, who lost their lives because they ran up the stairs of the burning buildings. The contrast in their choices is almost as striking as the difference in their salaries.

There are a number of ethical, political, social, and economic factors here that deserve a close consideration well beyond the accepted parameters of a traditional human interest story. But what’s of greatest immediate importance is not the courage, commitment, job choices or starting salaries of those whom Kahn describes as the next generation of corporate leaders and Wall Street hotshots. What’s at issue is the ineffable quality of leadership, a topic notably absent from the article. Elsewhere, the topic is discussed extensively but often without much insight. It’s been long debated as to whether it can be taught by parents, business schools, or society in general. But there’s nothing like a crisis to focus attention and to bring clarity.

In the wake of the attacks, we have come to define leadership through numerous examples of individual actions and decisions. The examples were not hard to find or to identify, although their contexts and results varied widely. As the towers crashed along with our sense of invulnerability, individuals stepped in to preserve, protect, defend, and rebuild the institutions that we all rely upon. They did so embodying the values that we often take for granted but which brought us together in the aftermath.

Terrorism has taught us that we cannot simply assume that our institutions will continue to stand or that our values will continue to unite us. In reconsidering U.S. foreign policy, we realize that their extensive influence must be managed carefully and protected from abuse, both at home and abroad. These are particularly poignant lessons for those at the beginning of their careers. Protecting our institutions and values presents challenges and conflict, with few easy answers. Taking these steps demands acts of leadership as wide-ranging as those of September 11. It demands that our schools and our society, including the media, focus intently on leadership as working to bring our values to life.

In response to Mr. Kahn’s article, it seems appropriate to demand that HBS students and graduates earn their so-called “birthright” to the top echelons of the global economy. Many have done and continue to do so. The Harvard Business School did not become “the elite of elite,” as Kahn describes, through graduates who remained paralyzed for long by self-analysis and selfishness in the face of challenge and conflict. But leadership is a challenge for the present and the future, not a birthright from the past. Every member of the HBS community must work each day to maintain the institutions they rely upon.

One might say the same thing for members of the U.S. and international community at large.

Rebecca Wayland ’91
Wilton, Connecticut

September 24, 2001
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