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Another Model for Leadership and Community Values at HBS

Recently, an issue came up in Section A. Without getting into specifics–and since most of you probably know them anyway–the crux of the issue was: what does a section do when the majority wants to do one thing but the minority is opposed? The answer proposed to us by our section chair was that a section simply doesn’t do things that bother even one person in it. He has suggested that since we’re all paying for the HBS experience, we have the right to live through it offense free. The thinking is that as leaders, we need to conduct ourselves in a way that others will not take offense to, and that we might as well start now. I, however, offer another model for leadership and community values at HBS.

Our sections are extremely diverse. With 90 people from different countries, industries, backgrounds, etc., it is unlikely that we’ll all think the same way. In fact, we’ve been deliberately grouped as a section because we think differently. In such an environment, 100% agreement is not possible; there will always be a dissenting minority. So what is a section to do?

Many traditions at HBS are arguably controversial. I am certain that there is at least someone in every section (Statue of Liberty Award recipient?) who wishes we did not do Sky Deck awards. Similarly, it is likely that at least one person is offended by the fact that there is alcohol at most section events. Does that mean we ought to abandon Sky Decks and section happy hours? Clearly that would be less offensive, but is stripping away the HBS traditions one by one really the answer?

While it is our duty as leaders not to be offensive, it is our equal duty not to be offended. It is inappropriate for the future leaders of world business to be “deeply troubled” by section games or “profoundly offended” by section decorations except in the most extreme situations.

There are simply bigger issues with which we as a community ought to be concerning ourselves. Without question, real community standards violations exist at HBS. Rather than crying wolf at every vaguely offensive action and creating a vanilla society designed to make everyone happy, HBS students would be better off developing a thicker skin and focusing on the bigger issues.

If HBS teaches us to be so dull as to never make suggestions that will be offensive to anyone, then it has not provided us with a good education. If we leave here a bunch of thin-skinned, whiney, easily offended wimps, we’ll do neither HBS nor ourselves a service. The best lesson we can take from values at HBS is that values are a two way street. While we need to learn not to offend people, learning not to be so easily offended is equally important.

December 2, 2002
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