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Why World Affairs Are Important For HBS

Picture the vast Atlantic Ocean. Deep blue water all around as far as you can see. Now picture a little sailboat cruising slowly in that vast expanse of Ocean. The Ocean represents what we might call “world affairs”-the political, cultural, social, and macroeconomic contours of life on this planet. The sailboat represents the personal life and professional career of an HBS graduate-sailing along but never independent or separable from its large, complex, and changing environment.

The point: our careers will play out in a complicated, shifting environment that we must understand if we have any hope of rising to our best potential. These last two years in which geopolitical uncertainty has been the norm proves the case. Events like September 11, renewed conflict in the Middle East, a looming conflict with Iraq, and tensions on the Korean Peninsula remind us that the world is full of risk, and that seemingly vague global problems can have real consequences-that involve life and death-and may strike close to home.

We don’t talk enough about these issues at HBS. In the long list of this community’s strengths-engagement of world issues ranks near the bottom. It is possible that, right now, the world stands in greater peril and uncertainty than in any time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Two major potential conflicts that may involve weapons capable of mass destruction hang over the world community. The specter of another devastating terrorist attack is, according to US officials, at record highs.

Yet as we’ve heard many HBS students remark-you’d often never know it by being a part of this community. Spangler isn’t humming with talk of these issues. Our classes and our school events are blind to these concerns. Whole issues of the HARBUS pass by without mentioning the perilous climate that exists beyond the boundaries of this campus.

HBS students should care deeply for world affairs. The CEO of the future will be vastly more culturally astute, more traveled, more knowledgeable of history-especially outside of his or her own country. Needing to motivate highly educated workers and to establish partnerships outside of the firm, tomorrow’s CEO will be more akin to a political leader-building coalitions and persuading others through diplomacy and negotiation-than the hierarchical, command and control leaders of the past.

In a world of ever-narrower specialists, future CEOs will, increasingly be consummate generalists, integrators, with world affairs squarely on their plate. CEOs of large organizations, especially now but always, stay awake at night worrying about the kind of environmental risks and opportunities that world affairs create. The macro environment can severely impact a company’s fortunes, for example when global financial markets wreak havoc on a CFOs plans to raise funds. What’s more, we know that many HBS graduates will spend time in the public sector working directly as elected officials or serving in high-level advisory capacities. All of these roles will quite obviously demand a sophisticated understanding of events beyond the business world.

On top of all of this, HBS’ mission to educate leaders plainly demands that we are students of world affairs. This planet’s most intractable problems are all public dilemmas. Make a list of the top five things that would most improve the human condition and they are decidedly issues of world affairs-all political, social, cultural, military, governmental, and macroeconomic concerns. They are the questions that cry out for the most attention but receive the least energy here at HBS.

If this was just a business school, this status quo might be acceptable. But HBS goes far out of its way to purport (and in the main we think it is true) that it is not merely a business school but a school of leadership. A place where young people are encouraged-led to believe they have an obligation even-to transform the world for the better. This is what we were asked to buy into and indeed we have.

It is with this in mind that Hashem Montasser and other concerned students reinaugurate the HARBUS’ world affairs section. This is one positive change we can make to invigorate awaremess of world affairs here. Importantly, we do so less to be another source of information-we can all find endless sources of world affairs news and opinion-but more to provoke and force discussion of these issues here in our community.

More to send a message that HBS students do think about world issues and that we do take up the challenge of caring for these problems. This institution’s mission is clear and unambiguous. To make the world a better place.

And a community (and a student newspaper) absent discussion and action on the world’s most important problems is simply inconsistent with that purpose. Sparked by this renewed world affairs content in the HARBUS, we hope many other members of the community will choose to engage in the debate, perhaps by contributing to a future issue. We hope this article serves as an invitation to do so.

Sailing without a detailed knowledge of environmental conditions, what they are now and what they are likely to be in the future, is insane. No serious captain would ever do it. So too for us. Anyone who thinks they can reach the height of their career independent of understanding the world environment is likely quite wrong and missing a great opportunity.

Our best hope for our own careers and for truly making a difference is to not only master our chosen career paths but also to understand, engage, and ultimately to shape world affairs for the better.

March 10, 2003
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