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The Strenuous Life – A Call for Authentic Living

It is painful for me to think that I might succumb to what Teddy Roosevelt called a “cloistered life which saps the hardy virtues. as it saps the individual; or else.[being] wedded to that base spirit of gain and greed which recognizes in commercialism the be-all and end-all ., instead of realizing that though an indispensable element, it is, after all but one of the many elements.”

As graduation nears, the temptation to follow seems greater at times than the impulse to lead. A classmate of mine says that this is the siren call to “[to spend more] time walking away from the truth.” The truth being that as part of a world bigger than ourselves, we might have a duty to be ourselves and live out our talents. When I came to Harvard there was part of me that secretly hoped that in a school full of “leaders” I might have a chance to blend into the scenery. Something selfish in me wanted to be somewhere I might not be singled out to use my gifts for the benefit of others and could be lulled into a sense of complacency. For some temptation of this sort in any form is too onerous and taxing and in turn consider the alternative of taking Oscar Wilde’s advice on eliminating temptation by “yielding to it.”

More than a century ago Harvard faced temptation to be like other business schools but it decided to take what at the time seemed like bold steps; requiring collegiate studies and a sense of responsibility as graduate of the school in using enterprise to shape the world. (It is worth noting that a century later the temptation to be like others tempts the school as it did then, yet the absence of that temptation would be a sad sign indeed.)

It has been of some importance to me that as President of the United States of America Teddy Roosevelt took interest in Harvard’s initial plans, more than a century ago, to establish a school of public service and commerce, which we know today as the Harvard Business School. I care that he took interest because in my estimate President Roosevelt was one of those rare characters who made his presence known in and out of his own time, and I lament that many characters today never seem to take stage.

With respect to President Roosevelt’s relevance today consider that this month Yale will commemorate the centennial of Roosevelt’s 1908 conference of governors that sparked the “modern conservation movement” by convening governors from across the country to talk about climate change. This example reminds me of the impact individuals can have when they struggle despite being well aware of the cost involved or that the returns may not come in their own lifetimes.

Real impact means taking risks (calculated or not) and Real risk involves the Real prospect of Failure as much as it does Sucess. Somehow this is not conspicuously acceptable here and it has seemed to me a dangerous and almost subversive subject to suggest that we should have real impact in shaping the world. Should it not be the opposite, that we prize the opportunity to take risks at HBS, an environment with a safety net, and re-enter the world with the mettle to grapple with the issues of the day?

President Roosevelt said that, “We cannot avoid meeting great issues. All that we can determine for ourselves is whether we shall meet them well or ill.” To be fair meeting challenges well or ill says nothing of success or failure, only that we bring proper preparation and mettle to the battle, but consider this month’s lead story in Conde Nast’s Portfolio Magazine that opens by talking about the “Daring Experiment” at HBS to teach women in the MBA program. The article talks about the initial aspirations and makes note of the progress made toward the goal of fostering more opportunity for women in executive roles in corporate life. Imagine if the faculty at the Harvard Business School had decided to play it safe and ran only a “modestly daring” experiment, where the prospect of real impact was significantly less. When real opportunity comes and presents itself then anything less than our complete preparation for it and resolute commitment leaves us with a losing position.

Let me bring this to a close. President Roosevelt suggested that material progress in a society is important, but that no nation in the world could be “truly great if it relied upon material prosperity alone.” More than the fruits of successfully managed business enterprises a society required citizens who also understood the role of hard work and toil in preparation of “competence” to wrestle with the great challenges of the day “for themselves and those dependent on them.” If President Roosevelt is right then how many of us at the Harvard Business School can avoid the strenuous life, and if we who occupy these halls feel that it is beyond us then to whom should such responsibility fall?

“A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world.” – Theodore Roosevelt” – The Strenuous Life April 10th, 1899.

April 7, 2008
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