A Lesson from the Class of 1959

Jonathan reminds readers of their higher responsibility to impact the world as Harvard Business School students.

Every now and again we take for granted that we have a special work to accomplish. And for those of us who have a fierce competitive spirit, we look not to others, but rather through our own eyes and beyond the horizon, ultimately finding that we are looking to construct challenges that require us to measure ourselves not only by outcomes but also the means through which these outcomes are achieved.

It was only a few days ago that I was in a car with some sectionmates in route to our section retreat, when the driver remarked upon facing rush hour traffic, “If I only had my Tomtom (GPS).[I could find a better and quicker way to the retreat]. As surely as I write this article we found our way to the retreat, however life does not always afford us such a clear passage to where we want to be. In business we find that this is especially the case and although we find that men and women with good intentions can disagree about how they should handle the task of running their business enterprises and being otherwise reconciled to their own better ideals of business and its role in society. Even as a student I feel the burden of this struggle, accordingly I earnestly make time while I am here to consider intentions of the Class of 1959 in erecting the copper chapel and clock. For those of you who have not read the inscription on the chapel, it reads that the chapel is placed here at Harvard Business School, “to make our community complete and to remind us of our higher purpose and ideals.” For me there is striking seriousness in the gift of the Class of 1959, for it is something which they hoped would remind successive generations of the special work of this school and the responsibility afforded to those educated here.

Jeffrey L. Cruikshank’s book a “A Delicate Experiment” provides apt context for understanding the special work of Harvard Business School and ideals that cemented its origin. For starters we find that prior to taking the helm as president of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell was one of the champions of Harvard Business School, which he called “A great, but.delicate experiment.” At the same time these great expectations for success were framed by Edwin F. Gay, the first dean of Harvard Business School, in such a way as to focus on educating business leaders who possessed the qualities of “courage, good judgment, and a sympathetic tact, as certain kindness of spirit which unites the two other elements, which purifies courage by removing its grosser belligerency and tempers judgment by the understanding heart.” It was thought by Dean Gay that business, “[w]as the activity of making things to sell at a profit-decently.” To be fair these ideals are laudable but they certainly come at a cost. Decency and/or maintaining one’s “sympathetic tract” are not the only or even the easiest means by which one could maximize profits and results in business enterprises.

Toward the close of my LCA course I posed the question to my LCA professor, “What do you do when your values fall out of favor?” I shared the example of investing where we take for granted that investors have rewarded style drift as well as the more recent situation wherein many principal investment firms have asked to have the latitude to chase alpha (or returns) wherever they might exist, even if it violates the strategy of the fund. While my professor would not provide me with a bankable and prescriptive answer, the answer seemed clear nonetheless in my mind. One must hold true to one’s values in the face of what Rudyard Kipling called the, “two imposters”: Triumph and Disaster. But as an institution with a special work, we have faced the temptation to consider our triumphs and disasters almost exclusively as a function of the status quo in business and the best practices of our peer institutions. Today as I think about the special work of the school and the individuality that Rudyard Kipling extolled in his poem “If,” I recognize that the true answer to my question for my LCA professor may have been summed up better by Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his sermon “Transformed Nonconformist,” suggested that staying true to your values (irrespective of whether they are favored or not) is about being a, “thermostat that transform[s] and regulate[s] the temperature of [a] society.”

Dean Gay’s notion of decency and the certain qualities mentioned earlier were considered the paradigm for Harvard Business School and its expectations for business and its leaders. These ideas, it would seem, are directly at odds with Milton Friedman’s idea that the, “One and only social responsibility of business. [is] to increase profits.” Yet, we remember that Harvard Business School has something special to accomplish.in fact we endeavor to something “Great.” We expect our institution and its graduates to be a thermostat for conduct and achievement in business and all the enterprises with which we find ourselves involved. The days in which men rationalized and reasoned that they had limited capability in impacting the world in which they live are likely ending just as we come to terms with the excess, misgivings, and unrealistic aims of Milton Friedman’s expectations for business given that we live in a global economy that reminds us that government and social enterprise can not hope to deal with the challenges of today without serious consideration and involvement by business.

Looking forward and thinking about the impact of Harvard Business School over the next century, I am hopeful about the swing of the pendulum against the last quarter of a century that did not explicitly select for our values in a business climate dominated by Milton Friedman’s notion of business’s social responsibility, but regardless of what we might accomplish with the wind at our backs the real question and test of our character as an institution and our mettle to stick to our special work has been submitted and scored over the last century. I imagine that with all our accolades our feedback might very well include admonishment to pursue our special work in the world, especially in times like the last quarter century when the purpose of our work seemed undervalued. Time is too precious a thing for history to remember us for forsaking our special work; our work would not be special if there was not an expectation that we were uniquely responsible to complete it. We forget that it is not a question of whether we will have impact but rather what will our impact be and can we live with harvest of the seeds that we had sown?

“I should like to see Harvard a pioneer.I think we had better do things that nobody else does.Therefore, if it is worthwhile to try the experiment at all, it is best to try it under the best conditions for permanent success.”
-A. Lawrence Lowell
Speaking about special training for business at Harvard.

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business-to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
-Milton Friedman

Editor’s Note:
Milton Friedman’s death on Thursday, November 16 was announced after Jonathan Kelly’s article was submitted for print.