Taking Measure on the Inevitability of Success

EC and KSG Dual Degree student Jonathan Kelly reflects on thechallenging thought that success as individuals is not inevitable and what this means to us as students and to Harvard Business School as an institution.

I attended a panel recently where a Harvard Business School faculty member challenged the audience to recognize that our success as individuals “is not inevitable.” Throughout modernity human beings have maintained a tendency to look for order, often taking solace in assuming the perpetuation of patterns.particularly those related to success. The late John K. Galbraith spoke to this in great depth in his book, “A Short History of Financial Euphoria.” Elsewhere when looking at current investment literature we see warning in the form of fine print which reads: disclaimer: past performance is not indicative of future results. These insights when taken outside the context of the financial markets are helpful in making one mindful and self aware when considering the future. I think that when one looks to see whether or not he has succeeded in the past, he should acknowledge what his triumphs were, and understand where he fell short of his aims. This allows one to understand what factors, if any, would make one’s future success seem inevitable in the face of the distant sea of uncertainty that stands between today and tomorrow.

Coming back to the comment that was made by the faculty member, I found myself moved by the declaration and later I wondered if the same could be said of institutions, and if so the question arises: Is it in fact inevitable that the Harvard Business School will succeed? Before taking measure of the past, I want to make the case that there are three assumptions inherent in our current mission that are critical to our ability to be something special as an institution and a success in our own right.

1) The Harvard Business School does not purport to teach people how to be leaders.
2) The Harvard Business School views leadership as an active endeavor.
3) The Harvard Business School maintains the expectation that leaders can necessarily make the world different.

Assumption #1
Leadership has taken on and maintained a phlogiston-like quality and as such there is a great deal of mystery around the subject that limits in our ability to understand it. Yet many organizations hang out their shingle to help people figure out how to bottle or grow leadership personally or in the ranks of their firms. Therefore it comes as no surprise that educational institutions have significant incentive to have an association with leadership even if only in concept. Even some of the world’s most prominent organizations and governments have invested extensively in creating executive leadership development schools to train their own employees in hopes of fostering leadership internally. In spite of the significant market making opportunity in alchemy of leadership, the Harvard Business School MBA Program has focused on creating a platform for developing leaders and not taking credit for their creation. This speaks to the importance of the approach taken by our office of admissions, wherein the emphasis that is put on leadership potential serves to signal to applicants that we look for introspection and self reflection throughout our application process. While a number of institutions would say that they look for the same qualities, it is this self narrative about one’s own view of his life that allows admissions to recognize what Warren Bennis in “Geeks & Geezers” calls the “crucibles” in a person’s life that have facilitated their development thus far as a leader. This approach recognizes importantly that leadership is not an end state and fosters the possibility of “transformational experiences” at HBS and transformational lives beyond Soldiers Field.

Assumption #2
Growing up back home in the south, every so often you would hear someone respond to an individual’s initiative by saying, “Who died and left you in charge?” which served to recognize a skeptical and common ire towards individual initiative. This sentiment also tended to reinforce the notion of leadership as a final destination that required people to wait their turn instead of viewing leadership as a continuous process. The Harvard Business School as an enterprise has strove to prepare leaders during each decade of its existence to have a mindset that the school was preparing them to deal not with the challenges of yesterday but rather preparing them to view the unwieldy problems of today as the opportunity of tomorrow. The discipline of the Harvard Business School faculty to focus not on developing professional skills but rather what my Strategy Prof. John Wells calls the, “Courage to make decisions in the face of uncertainty,” has had the practical effect of attracting a cadre of students and faculty who are focused on outcomes and not simply self obsolescent frameworks given to a specific business discipline. Fortunately or unfortunately this also has the added benefit of allowing the school to have a more important role to play in the world even as the MBA skill set becomes commoditized. So, if it is the job of admissions to recognize and isolate alpha in the form of leadership potential, historically and currently, in a pool of prospective students, then it is necessarily the role of our faculty to foster a way of thinking about and examining the world that allows our students the chance to defy the odds and create a sustainable impact on the world. We view our case method as sacrosanct in this regard because it reminds the leaders that we attract to study that leadership is about priorities and accountability which sets the expectation that both action and inaction are active forms of leadership for which leaders are held responsible.

Assumption #3
Harris Interactiver and The Wall Street Journal Sixth Annual Business School Survey released September 20, 2006 made note of the finding from its survey of recruiters that “If asked by their CEO to recruit his/her successor, Harvard Business School was mentioned as the school most recruiters would go to for recruiting the company’s new leader.”

For fear of being overzealous I will not make too many assertions about what this does and does not mean other than to say that it is a signal of how we are perceived in the marketplace. However, I do feel that to the extent that we have a brand that has been created over time, some before the founding of America with the creation of Harvard and more in the last century with the establishment of the Graduate School of Business in Allston, recruiters believe that there is something about the people educated here that makes them different, and better able to meet the challenges commensurate with CEO opportunity in the case referenced above. The question about what causes this difference is especially salient with prospective students with whom I speak. To provide some context, my response to this question about difference is based largely on growing up in a Baptist Church where I read the parable of the four soils at the beginning of the fourth chapter of Mark in the Holy Bible, as well as my experiences on my grandmother’s farm in Guilford County, NC. So, I tell students that I think the decision on where to go to school is ultimately about deciding which school is going to be the most fertile ground for their development and as a result the place where they would sow themselves and be the most fruitful going forward. I follow up by saying that I believe that the Harvard Business School has a commitment to develop its students precisely because it respects their individuality and views fostering the student’s confidence in their own unique contribution to the world. Two things follow from my statement, first the capacity for leadership that each person brings is unique and therefore a limited natural resource. Second, as something rare, the stakes are higher for that natural resource to be utilized optimally. Together these points serve
to explain why we so ardently believe in the importance of our leaders in making a difference in the world.

These three assumptions in my mind are what allow us to have an actionable mission statement as an institution. We seek to identify leaders, we educate leaders who lead in all tenses of the word, and we challenge leaders that have a unique contribution to give the world which makes this world different for their actions.