Friday, June 09, 2006

Backstage At The Harvard Business School Commencement – Some Random Thoughts

I stood in the rain yesterday for two and a half hours to watch a number of my friends receive their MBA diplomas from Harvard Business School. It was a small price to pay for a rich experience of celebrating a special time with a special group of gifted leaders. These men and women are individuals I have come to know and respect through my involvement with the Armed Forces Alumni Association at HBS. Each of them, prior to arriving at Harvard, served with distinction as an officer in the U.S. military. A little rain did not dampen their enthusiasm for celebrating a special and significant achievement.

While waiting for the ceremonies to begin, I wandered in Spangler Hall among the pictures and essays that are part of a special portraiture exhibit of graduates of earlier classes. The graduates had been asked, as they prepared to leave HBS, to talk about their goals and what they hoped to accomplish. Then, they were asked a few weeks ago to write another brief essay with an update about their lives today. I was stopped in my tracks as I read the essays of one particular member of the Class of 2002.

Phil Black’s essays caught my eye for a myriad of reasons. He had an initial set of goals – those he felt would be his priorities as he started his studies at HBS - that looked pretty “normal” for an HBS graduate entering the business world: Start a company that would issue an IPO, earn $X million by age Y, etc. Those goals had lines drawn through them, and they were replaced by the new priorities that had developed during his two years at Harvard. I am paraphrasing his words, but I think I caught the spirit of what he was trying to convey:

“Have a job that will enable me to be home at least four night a week so that I will be able to kneel by my children’s beds and pray with them as I tuck them in at night.”

Those words in print in the lobby of Harvard’s Spangler Hall took my breath away. What a contrast to the lives that many young professionals choose to lead – 80-90 hour weeks as road warriors, investment bankers, advertising executives, junior associates in a law firm or hedge fund. It is not my purpose to point fingers at Wall Street or Madison Avenue or Park Avenue or Silicon Valley. I am thankful for the strong economic engines that fuel our economy and create historic and unprecedented levels of productivity in today’s global economy. But I see too many young men and women grow old and jaded before their time and miss important family events and milestones by allowing their lives to become one-dimensional and driven only by considerations of career. Thank God for the growing cadre of men and women like Phil Black who have learned the wisdom to weave into their life scripts a healthy dose of “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .”!

* * * *

I stood behind a special VIP section reserved for a delegation of dignitaries from an African nation that remains unknown to me today. It was clear from the ceremonial robes they wore under the plastic ponchos that Harvard had provided for all the hardy guests that they were from Africa. They applauded wildly and photographed enthusiastically several graduates who were also obviously from an African nation. The delegation was surrounded by what appeared to be a contingent of Secret Service men and women – the kind of detail that is normally only supplied to a head of state. There was no mention during the preliminary words of greeting by the Dean of HBS of any special dignitaries in the audience. I was impressed by the fact that that these important personages must have chosen to remain anonymous and let be the day be – as it should be – all about the graduates and their achievements.

* * * *

I had placed myself in a position to have the optimal opportunity to greet as many of my friends as possible as they walked to the platform to receive their diplomas. Seated in the last row of the graduates was a soldier recently returned from Iraq. I was able to observe him as he greeted several of his classmates who had also served in combat. The comment I heard repeated most often was something along the lines of: “Today’s celebration is that much sweeter because of the news we just received from Iraq that we finally got Al-zarqawi!” So, beneath the radar of most of the audience a quiet drama was playing out that helped these men and women – many of whom have served in Iraq – bring a degree of closure to that part of their lives as they walked into the commencement of new vistas, new challenges and new chapters.

Congratulations to the HBS Class of 2006 – and especially to those from the Armed Forces Alumni Association. May you use your new credentials to continue to lead well and with honor!


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