On Exams: “Why don’t we just TELL them what they need to know?”

It’s that time of year: mid-term exams. Anxiety is in the air, for students and for faculty. In the exam results, the teacher sees what didn’t get learned, and confronts the possibility of his or her incompetence. At case method business schools, some teachers (and some students) are prone to ask, “Why don’t we (they) just tell them (us) what they (we) need to know?”

This delicious question gets to the heart of the case method and to the larger point of graduate business education (or in fact ANY education.) Some fairly exercised people have pitched this question to me over the years. Telling students what they need to know is probably a more efficient use of the teacher’s time. The alternative is asking, guiding the students through questions to arrive at an understanding of insights they need to gain. Four reasons explain why it is better to ask than tell:

1. Simply “telling” is incomplete and a low return on the students’ investment of time, effort, and money. “Telling” surely conveys names, dates, formulas, mechanics—the stuff of knowledge. One needs to master knowledge as a foundation for life. But a great university education entails much more than knowledge: it should also include the acquisition of skills and growth in wisdom. One gains skills and wisdom better through experiential learning than by being talked at.

2. Asking promotes meaning. We’ve all had the experience of intensive memorization (or cramming for an exam), followed by equally rapid forgetting of what was memorized. Research suggests that we forget because we’ve absorbed someone else’s structure of knowledge, one that has little or no meaning to the learner. The lessons are only permanently learned when knowledge is reframed in ways that are meaningful to the learner. In blunt terms, “Figure it out for yourself!” is excellent advice because it implies that you will cast someone else’s knowledge in ways that make sense to you (whether you like the ideas or not.) The case method is tremendous because you learn best that which you teach yourself.

3. Asking—not telling—better approximates the real world. Every case study is an exercise in confronting the ambiguity of life. Data are abundant, but often conflicting or inconsistent. Distractions are plenty. The stated problem may not be the real problem. And so on. Across hundreds of case studies, one develops a method for getting to the heart of the matter. This is excellent preparation for professional life.

4. Asking—not telling—models for others some attributes of leadership. You can train people to be order-takers by relentlessly telling them what to think and how to think. Alternatively, you can train people to lead from where they are by asking them to identify problems, frame a vision and strategy for dealing with those problems, enlist others, and develop a bias for action. Case teaching empowers the learners, and indeed, delegates responsibility to them. Elsewhere, I have argued that you can actually manage a company the way we teach by the case method—by asking, not telling. No manager is all-knowing. Senior leaders need employees up and down the organization to figure things out for themselves, to lead from where they are. Asking questions—not telling—helps to train others to take action.

What does asking, not telling, imply about exams?

The faculty should develop exams with a view to exercising the strengths of case learning. A great exam: is a case study; has a protagonist (a decision-maker) who faces a dilemma and has something at stake in the outcome; raises some urgency to the dilemma so that the decision-maker cannot just kick the can down the road (i.e. by hiring a consultant to figure things out); should require action and recommendations; should offer information sufficient for the student to display mastery in terms of knowledge, skills, and wisdom; should be constructively ambiguous and have no single “right” answer (but lots of wrong ones); should be do-able in the allotted exam time; and should be gradable in reasonable time.  Finding a case that meets all of these criteria is a tall order.  Mother never said it would be easy.

To students, I would say that if your instructor follows my advice, the best preparation is as follows:

1. Find a place free of distractions to think and write. If the case is loaded with constructive ambiguity, some of the most important decisions you will make during the exam entail where not to go. The ambiguities in the case may be tantalizing and distracting. You don’t need more distractions from outside the case. If you are a variety-seeker or one whose mind is prone to wander, get rid of everything in your environment that invites you to wander.

2. Get in the “zone.” Ideally, you would find a sense of flow or total engagement with the case. A little anxiety or sense of pressure is OK if not good, but too much will get you out of the zone. Just remember that your teacher is likely to give you a challenge that you have seen before. If you’ve kept up with your case preparation through the course, you should be able to recognize the core problem in the case and envision a way through it. The “zone” is a place where you feel that you’ve been before and have some confidence and even enjoyment in working through the case. A good night’s sleep helps to get in the zone, as does some sensible nutrition.

3. Address the question or problem in the case. Many case teachers will give you explicit exam questions to address. Answer them. The commonest distraction of an exam-taker is to get too wrapped-up in the elegance of some calculation and to ignore its implications. Based on your analysis, what does the protagonist need to know or do? Make a recommendation! To do so is to show that you can move from book-learning to “useful knowledge” (as Thomas Jefferson put it) and from analysis to wisdom.

4. Write about what leaves you uneasy. Perhaps the case invited you to make some heroic assumptions that seem unrealistic. This should raise red flags for you. And indeed, it may be the real problem in the case. Your ability to discuss uncertainties and risk will demonstrate a more sophisticated view of the dilemma. The ability to think critically about facts, analysis, and one’s own recommendations really separates the top performers from the rest.

5. Balance your allocation of time between analysis and writing. Setting a target or timer, helps to prevent becoming so enamored of your analysis that you forget to write about it.

6. If you run out of time, let the reader know where you would go next in your analysis and discussion. This “road map” dispels any impression that you’re just floundering and builds confidence in the teacher’s mind that you know what you are doing. And don’t get frantic if you’re running out of time. You aren’t alone; a number of your classmates will run out of time too. Stay calm and in the zone.

7. Work independently. Absolutely abide by the rules and honor code. The spirit of an exam is to demonstrate that you can “figure things out for yourself.” Respect the spirit and letter.

8. And keep some perspective: it’s just an exam, not a judgment about your life. Jack Ma, the founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group wrote, “I flunked my exam for university two times before I was accepted by what was considered my city’s worst university, Hangzhou Teachers University. I was studying to be a high school English teacher. In my university, I was elected student chairman and later became chairman of the city’s Students Federation.” Jack Ma failed a couple of exams but arguably succeeded in his career.

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In the absence of “right” answers

“It’s an umpire’s convention. Three umpires are standing aside, conversing. The first umpire, the most junior, says, “Baseball, nuthin’ but balls and strikes. I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” After a pause, the umpire with somewhat more experience, says, “Baseball, nuthin’ but balls and strikes. I calls ‘em as they are.” Finally, the senior umpire says, “Baseball, nuthin’ but balls and strikes. They ain’t nuthin’ till I calls ‘em.”“  [ 1]

This is a seemingly stupid disagreement over terminology, yet like much of baseball, it contains subtleties over which one can hear even philosophers argue. The fact is that reasonable people can disagree. The story illustrates the imponderable interactions of perception, definition, and choice. Different umpires will see the same pitch differently. And a study just out says that umpires call a pitch incorrectly about 10% of the time. Thanks to video cameras and digital recording, we now know that umpires aren’t infallible—after 169 years of baseball, this can’t be a surprise. And thanks to rather vivid photographs, we see how angry players can be with the judgments of the umpires.

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So too for general managers and leaders in all enterprises. On the most important kinds of questions, there are no answers in the back of the book that affirm what one should do. And the odds are nontrivial that you’ll be wrong in your judgment. What should the leader do about this? More immediately, what should the b-school professor or the MBA student who faces mid-term exams take from this?

The first lesson should regard how to look at managerial dilemmas.  One ought to wisdom and exercise students’ ability to act in a bewildering world. The real world is messy. Information is incomplete, arrives late, or is reported with error. The motivations of counterparties are ambiguous. Resources often fall short. Concepts that B-schools teach have immense practicality for sorting out the issues facing managers, assessing alternatives, weighing ethical dilemmas, recognizing moral hazards, and illuminating the effects of any particular choice. As one of the iconic professors in operations research, Russell Ackoff, once wrote, “Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes …Managers do not solve problems: they manage messes.”  [ 2]

Messes present very murky decision problems. Over many years, students have learned that there are very few single ‘right’ answers in business—but there are lots and lots of wrong ones. The job as a student is to learn to parse the two. At least the following three questions can get you to the root of most dilemmas and start you down a good path:

1. What’s your purpose? The old saying is, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” The absence of single ‘right’ answers does not mean that anything goes. Begin with clarity about your mission, vision, and values. Stick to those, and you are probably halfway through the dilemma. This addresses the second umpire’s statement “I calls ‘em as they are”—this is all about definition of standards. What is important to you and your enterprise?

2. What’s your context? You might not have all the information about your situation that you’d like to have, but do you have what you need? If the decision is important enough, do not be shy about pestering people to give you more clarity about your setting. SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) is one time-worn way to flesh out what you know. This kind of work might also reveal that the dilemma as presented is incomplete: rather than two alternatives, there may be many. One source of error in judgment is to make yes/no decisions when in reality you have a host of possible either/or choices. Clarity about your context addresses the issue of perception, the first umpire’s statement—if you “calls ‘em as you sees ‘em,” you want to make sure that you’re seeing properly.

3. What do your answers to the first two questions imply for your strategy? Most managerial dilemmas are tactical in nature. As tempting as it may be, it’s always dangerous to let tactical decisions define your strategy. You must have in mind a general path forward, even at the risk of closing some doors (or opening others). To choose a strategy is to be the third umpire: “They ain’t nuthin’ till I calls ‘em.”

With the passing of years, one accumulates instincts for parsing out the wrong answers from the rest—such instincts can be costly to acquire. Walter Wriston used to say that “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”

The poet, Carl Sandburg, was a baseball fanatic. He wrote, “The inexplicable is all around us. So is the incomprehensible. So is the unintelligible. Interviewing Babe Ruth in 1928, I put it to him “People come and ask what’s your system for hitting home runs—that so?” “Yes,” said the Babe, “and all I can tell ‘em is I pick a good one and sock it. I get back to the dugout and they ask me what it was I hit and I tell `em I don’t know except it looked good.”” [ 3] — Carl Sandburg marveled at Babe Ruth’s inexplicable, incomprehensible, and unintelligible instincts, he skipped any mention of Ruth’s years of practice and climb to fame.

Where B-schools can make a difference in the development of leaders is by accelerating the acquisition of those instincts. In the case method of learning, each case is a rehearsal for some dilemma to come. B-schools help the future Babe Ruths of business make the incomprehensible comprehensible, and thus sharpen their wisdom for good decisions.

  1. Michael Levin, “Cultural Truth and Ethnographic Consequences,” Culture, 1991, vol 11, page 94. [ ]
  2. Russell Ackoff, “The Future of Operational Research is Past,” Journal of Operational Research Society, 30, 1 (Pergamon Press, Ltd., 1979): 93-104. [ ]
  3. Carl Sandburg, “Notes for Preface,” in Harvest Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), p.11. [ ]
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Advice to an entering student

Some years ago, I happened upon Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, by George Horace Lorimer—I recommend the book. Lorimer was an editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and penned a column for his readers over the 1890s that was eventually gathered into this book, and published in 1902. The letters were written by a fictitious “John Graham,” who was a captain of industry, had built a large meatpacking company in Chicago, and had learned what he knew from the school of hard knocks. His son, Pierrepont, had apparently enjoyed a more fortunate upbringing than had the father. The Letters entail advice, often witty and always wise. Read in the present day, the colloquialism and rough grammar, and the references to meatpacking and business conditions of the 1890s seem quaint. And were some editor to write such advice today, the references would be to sons and daughters, men and women. Still, Lorimer’s insights resonate.

This is the advice season. What does one urge upon students who are entering colleges and universities this year? Lorimer’s book affords a practical perspective. The first chapter is a letter addressed to Pierrepont, who has just enrolled as a member of the freshman class at Harvard; his mother has just left after bringing him there. I append the letter here:

Chicago, October 1, 189-

Dear Pierrepont: Your Ma got back safe this morning and she wants me to be sure to tell you not to over-study, and I want to tell you to be sure not to under-study. What we’re really sending you to Harvard for is to get a little of the education that’s so good and plenty there. When it’s passed around you don’t want to be bashful, but reach right out and take a big helping every time, for I want you to get your share. You’ll find that education is about the only thing lying around loose in this world, and that it’s about the only thing a fellow can have as much of as he’s willing to haul away. Everything else is screwed down tight and the screwdriver lost.

I didn’t have your advantages when I was a boy, and you can’t have mine. Some men learn the value of money by not having any and starting out by prying a few dollars loose from the odd millions that are lying around; and some learn it by having fifty thousand or so left to them and starting out to spend it as if it were fifty thousand a year. Some men learn the value of truth by having to do business with liars; and some by going to Sunday School. Some men learn the cussedness of whiskey by having a drunken father, and some by having a good mother. Some men get an education from other men and newspapers and public libraries, and some get it from professors and parchments—it doesn’t make any special difference how you get a half-nelson on the right thing, just so you get it and freeze on to it. The package doesn’t count after the eye’s been attracted by it, and in the end it finds its way to the ash heap. It’s the quality of the goods inside which tells, when they once get into the kitchen and up to the cook.

You can cure a ham in dry salt and you can cure it in sweet pickle, and when you’re through you’ve got pretty good eating either way, provided you start in with a sound ham. If you didn’t, it doesn’t make any special difference how you cured it—the ham-tryer’s going to strike the sour spot around the bone. And it doesn’t make any difference how much sugar and fancy pickle you soak into a fellow, he’s no good unless he’s sound and sweet at the core.

The first thing that any education ought to give a man is character, and the second thing is education. That is where I’m a little skittish about this college business. I’m not starting in to preach to you, because I know a young fellow with the right sort of stuff in him preaches to himself harder than anyone else can, and that he’s mighty often switched off the right path by having it pointed out to him in the wrong way.

I remember when I was a boy, and I wasn’t a very bad boy, as boys go, old Doc Hoover got a notion in his head that I ought to join the church, and he scared me out of it for five years by asking me right out loud in Sunday School if I didn’t want to be saved, and then laying for me after the service and praying with me. Of course I wanted to be saved, but I didn’t want to be saved quite so publicly.

When a boy’s had a good mother he’s got a good conscience, and when he’s got a good conscience he don’t need to have right and wrong labeled for him. Now that your Ma’s left and the apron strings are cut, you’re naturally running up against a new sensation every minute, but if you’ll simply use a little conscience as a tryer, and probe into a thing which looks sweet and sound on the skin, to see if you can’t fetch up a sour smell from around the bone, you’ll be all right.

I’m anxious that you should be a good scholar, but I’m more anxious that you should be a good clean man. And if you graduate with a sound conscience, I shan’t care so much if there are a few holes in your Latin. There are two parts of a college education—the part that you get in the schoolroom from the professors, and the part that you get outside of it from the boys. That’s the really important part. For the first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man.

Education’s a good deal like eating—a fellow can’t always tell which particular thing did him good, but he can usually tell which one did him harm. After a square meal of roast beef and vegetables, and mince pie and watermelon, you can’t just say which ingredient is going into muscle, but you don’t have to be very bright to figure out which one started the demand for painkiller in your insides, or to guess, next morning, which one made you believe in a personal devil the night before. And so, while a fellow can’t figure out to an ounce whether it’s Latin or algebra or history or what among the solids that is building him up in this place or that, he can go right along feeling them in and betting that they’re not the things that turn his tongue fuzzy. It’s down among the sweets, among his amusements and recreations, that he’s going to find his stomach-ache, and it’s there that he wants to go slow and pick and choose.

It’s not the first half, but the second half of a college education which merchants mean when they ask if a college education pays. It’s the Willie and the Bertie boys; the chocolate éclair and the tutti-frutti boys; the la-de-dah and the baa-baa-billy-goat boys; the high cock-a-lo-rum and the cock-a-doodle-do boys; the Bah Jove!, hair-parted-in-the-middle, charoot-smoking, Champagne-Charlie, up-all-night-and-in-all-day boys that make ‘em doubt the cash value of the college output, and overlook the roast-beef and blood-gravy boys, the shirt-sleeves and high-water-pants boys, who take their college education and make some fellow’s business hum with it.

Does a College Education pay? Does it pay to feed in pork trimmings at five cents a pound at the hopper and draw out nice, cunning, little “country” sausages at twenty cents a pound at the other end? Does it pay to take a steer that’s been running loose on the range and living on cactus and petrified wood till he’s just a bundle of barb-wire and sole-leather, and feed him corn till he’s just a solid hunk of porterhouse steak and oleo oil?

You bet it pays. Anything that trains a boy to think and to think quick pays; anything that teaches a boy to get the answer before the other fellow gets through biting the pencil pays.

College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. It doesn’t make bright men; it develops them. A fool will turn out a fool, whether he goes to college or not, though he’ll probably turn out a different sort of a fool. And a good, strong boy will turn out a bright, strong man whether he’s worn smooth in the grab-what-you-want-and-eat-standing-with-one-eye-skinned-for-the-dog school of the streets and stores, or polished up and slicked down in the give-your-order-to-the-waiter-and-get-a-sixteen-course-dinner school of the professors. But while the lack of a college education can’t keep No. 1 down, having it boosts No. 2 up.

It’s simply the difference between jump in, rough-and-tumble, kick-with-the-heels-and-butt-with-the-head fighting, and this grin-and-loo-pleasant, dodge-and-save-your-wind-till-you-see-a-chance-to-land-on-the-solar-plexus style of the trained athlete. Both styles win fights, but the fellow with a little science is the better man, providing he’s kept his muscle hard. If he hasn’t, he’s in a bad way, for his fancy sparring is just going to aggravate the other fellow so that he’ll eat him up.

Of course, some men are like pigs, the more you educate them, the more amusing little cusses they become, and the funnier capers they cut when they show off their tricks. Naturally, the place to send a boy of that breed is to the circus, not to college.

Speaking of educated pigs, naturally calls to mind the case of old man Whitaker and his son, Stanley. I used to know the old man mighty well ten years ago. He was one of those men whom business narrows, instead of broadens. Didn’t get any special fun out of his work, but kept right along at it because he didn’t know anything else. Told me he’d had to root for a living all his life and that he proposed to have Stan’s brought to him in a pail. Sent him to private schools and dancing schools and colleges and universities, and then shipping him to Oxford to soak in a little “atmosphere,” as he put it. I never could quite lay hold of that atmosphere dodge by the tail, but so far as I could make out, the idea was that there was something in the air of the Oxford ham house that gave a fellow an extra fancy smoke.

Well, about the time Stan was through, the undertaker called by for the old man, and when his assets were boiled down and the water drawn off, there wasn’t enough left to furnish Stan with a really nourishing meal. I had a talk with Stan about what he was going to do, but some ways he didn’t strike me as having the making of a good private of industry, let alone a captain, so I started in to get him a job that would suit his talents. Got him in a bank, but while he knew more about the history of banking than the president, and more about political economy than the board of directors, he couldn’t learn the difference between a fiver that the Government turned out and one that was run off on a hand press in a Halsted Street basement. Got him a job on a paper, but while he knew six different languages and all the facts about the Arctic regions, and the history of dancing from the days of Old Adam down to those of Old Nick, he couldn’t write up a satisfactory account of the Ice Men’s Ball. Could prove that two and two made four by trigonometry and geometry, but couldn’t learn to keep books; was thick as thieves with all the high-toned poets, but couldn’t write a good, snappy, merchantable street-car ad; knew a thousand diseases that would take a man off before he could blink, but couldn’t sell a thousand-dollar insurance policy; knew the lives of our Presidents as well as if he’s been raised with them, but couldn’t place a set of the Library of the Fathers of the Republic, though they were offered on little easy payments that made them come as easy as borrowing them from a friend. Finally I hit on what seemed to be just the right thing. I figured out that any fellow who had such a heavy stock of information on hand, ought to be able to job it out to good advantage, and so I got him a place teaching. But it seemed that he’d learned so much about the best way of teaching boys, that he told his principal right on the jump that he was doing it all wrong, and that made him sore; and he knew so much about the dead languages, which was what he was hired to teach, that he forgot he was handling live boys, and as he couldn’t tell it all to them in the regular time, he kept them after hours, and that made them sore and put Stan out of a job again. The last I heard of him he was writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it, because failing was the one subject on which he was practical.

I simply mention Stan in passing as an example of the fact that it isn’t so much knowing a whole lot, as knowing a little and how to use it that counts.

Your affectionate father,

John Graham

Union Stockyards, Chicago

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The “right kind of ignorance”: advice to the returning 2nd year MBA student

If ignorance is bliss, Father said,

Shouldn’t you be looking blissful?

You should check to see if you have

the right kind of ignorance. If you’re

not getting the benefits that most people

get from acting stupid, then you should

go back to what you always were—

being too smart for your own good.

– “The Benefits of Ignorance,” Hal Sirowitz

For students, the summer is practically over. Schools throughout the northern hemisphere are gearing up for the fall term. First-year MBA students are moving in, settling down, finding their way around, and getting ready for a transformational experience. Second-year MBA students have a rather different perspective—every summer I’ve written to them with advice about getting the most out of their summer jobs (see, for instance, this and this). This year, I want to offer advice about one’s learning perspective, which is no less relevant to gaining ultimate employment.

The job market for Darden’s MBA students is hot. The final numbers on the Class of 2015 are just coming in, so I’ll decline to get specific, but the mounting evidence is that students in that class gained virtually full employment. Kudos to them: the results aren’t due only to hot demand, but also to the quality of supply.

No doubt, the hot job market is not lost on rising second-year MBA students. It’s great to be a seller in a seller’s market. I wish the Class of 2016 results similar to 2015. And I would caution students that what burns hot in the first year can turn cold suddenly, as students in the classes of 2009 and 2000 found. Yet I resist dampening your outlook.

This year, my advice to rising second-years has less to do with getting the max out of your summer jobs and more to do with the mindset with which you engage your remaining time at Darden. This is motivated in part by today’s buoyant job market, and more generally by students’ self-confidence engendered by a successful first year and summer experience. You know the system; you passed the fearsome exams; you already toiled through maybe 300 case studies; you partied hard; you got a good summer job; and in most cases you got a full-time offer. In short, you not only survived, you prospered. Been there, done that.

Many years ago, a rising second-year student asked me, “Why should I come back?” He argued that the first year taught him the basics of business—the second year is just commentary, elaboration, and job-hunting. He said that the second year was “just doing time.” I responded that whereas the first year was about imparting insights that he knew he didn’t know, the second year was about deeper insights: “You still don’t know what you don’t know,” I said; “There is much more to learn.” Whereas the first year was totally structured around a common core of knowledge, the second year would be tailored—by him—to deepen capabilities that matter to him. By May of the second year, students rave to me about their experiences that year.

What that story suggests is the universal challenge for students: disbelief that what is to be taught is worth learning. But efforts by teachers to motivate students go only so far. The student must bring to the party at least a willingness (if not a zeal) to learn—call it a learning mindset. Such a mindset is a rare commodity. It begins with suspending disbelief.

In her very valuable book, Mindset, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck argues that the fulfillment of one’s potential depends on adopting a “growth mindset.” She says that, a growth mindset is a belief that intelligence can be developed. This “leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. As a result, they reach ever higher levels of achievement.” The alternative is a “fixed mindset” that sees intelligence as static. This “leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to avoid challenges, get defensive or give up easily, see effort as fruitless or worse, ignore useful negative feedback, and feel threatened by the success of others. As a result, they may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential.” [ 1] Dweck marshals an impressive volume of research in support of the framework. And the framework appeals intuitively; one easily recalls people who displayed one or the other mindset.

The value of learning and a growth mindset has been affirmed by colleagues at Darden. Jeanne Liedtka co-authored The Catalyst, a study of “growth leaders,” people who led businesses through an astonishing trajectory of advancement over a long period. She concluded that they stand apart from others in terms of their appetite to: learn, embrace challenges, persist, gain criticism, and draw from the examples of others. And another book, The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes, by Ed Hess and Jeanne Liedtka, extends the importance of organizational mindsets as a foundation for enabling growth. In short, a learning mindset is very important to high performance in business.

The poem by Hal Sirowitz is cheeky. It is easy to imagine it as the conclusion of a conversation between a wise-guy father and an uppity teenager. But the poem raises a tantalizing question for 2nd year MBA students: what is “the right kind of ignorance”? Surely, it is to acknowledge that one always has more to learn. We don’t know what we don’t know and therefore should bring to the effort a good measure of humility. Otherwise, it is too easy to be “too smart for your own good” and to be stuck in a fixed mindset. And just as surely, it is to acknowledge that some of what we know may need changing.  The American humorist, Josh Billings, once said that ignorance is not what one does not know, but rather is what one knows with certainty but isn’t true.  Think of alchemy, astrology, racism and sexism—world history is littered with ideas that good people once embraced as good thinking.  The right kind of ignorance is an acceptance of your own limitations in figuring everything out.

I wish the Class of 2016 great success as learners. Pursue this year with a passion. Cultivate your learning mindset in the year ahead. Graduation will be here before you know it.

  1. Both quotations from Dweck, page 245. [ ]
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What’s next after work?

“We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt (TR) was an energetic—some would say, manic—leader. As Police Commissioner, he fought to rid New York City of corruption. He led the Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill. He was the first activist President in U.S. history and enlarged the presidency beyond the concept of the founders of the Republic: he busted trusts, built the Panama Canal, negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese war (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize), and championed the progressive movement in American politics. He drew energy from the political process: on each New Year’s Day, he opened the White House to thousands of visitors and personally greeted each one at the door with a handshake and a hearty “Dee-lighted!” He served two terms as President. After failing in his campaign for a third term in 1912, he embarked on an exploration of the River of Doubt in South America—a trip that nearly killed him. [ 1] Yet he recovered and went on for seven more years as a writer of articles, books (some 18 of them), and as advocate of the “strenuous life.” Thus it is no surprise that TR would “choose to wear out” in the final chapter of his life.

TR’s example raises the question, what does one do after a career of work? This is relevant here in Charlottesville: last spring, the University of Virginia announced an early-retirement program that has enticed wonderful staff colleagues (such as Kitty Smiley, Barbara Richards, and Lee Pierce) to retire. (To give you a sense of the wonderful citizenship such colleagues gave, see this Forbes blog post by Darden colleague Kim Whitler.) Sooner or later, most people feel ready for a change, love of friends and community notwithstanding. They grow out of a job or the job grows out of them. You have to listen to the voice that tells you that it’s time to move along. The first thing one must do after a career of work is to simply move along.

To move along is to let go of the past, to embrace the present, and to look forward. This doesn’t mean giving up your values or love for family, friends, or work community. But moving along does mean opening up new possibilities. A challenge faced by many professionals upon retirement is the utter loss of identity associated with the work they were doing (see this). Failure to replace the old identity with something new contributes to depression, illness, and decline. Thus, A.G. Lafley, the former and current CEO of Procter and Gamble, has said that when a CEO leaves, he or she should “move out, move away, and move on.” [ 2]

Another thing one does after a career of work is to sustain what is important. Former U.S. Presidents offer good examples: Carter, Clinton, and Bush (43) have become advocates for social causes. The book, Finishing Well, by Bob Buford reports numerous interviews of successful executives that reaffirm the importance of priorities and values in the final chapters of one’s life. [ 3]

Last weekend, Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, came to town for a performance. Keillor, 72, has announced his retirement as of next July and is doing an enormous farewell tour. He was on stage for three hours, and as far as one could tell, used no notes, scripts, or sheet music—his genius of warmth, wit, and criticism is authentic and spontaneous. He qualifies as a modern-day Mark Twain. After the show, several members of the audience commented on a feeling of sadness, that we would lose such a creative spirit. Yet it seems unlikely that a writer whose lifetime was devoted to communication will suddenly go silent. He may give up the grind of a weekly show, but we are likely to hear more from him. One sustains what is important.

Third, one continues to invest in learning. Stasis, intellectually, is associated with decline. The universe of knowledge continues to expand. Grow with it. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post.

Fourth, one stops calling it “retirement,” a word that suggests leisure. Most retirees tell me that they are busier now than they were when working full time. Given the devastation of the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession, many “retirees” must continue to work part-time to supplement their savings (see this). Others are called upon for advice and counsel, drawing on their years of experience. Leonard Sandridge, former EVP and Chief Operating Officer of UVA, contributes a great deal of his time on a pro bono basis to various organizations. Leisure does not describe most of the retirees I know, at least those in good health.

A case in point about what to call it is my own transition from the Dean’s Office at Darden. This is the result of a long-planned process (see this). All spring, students kindly wished me well upon my “retirement.” I explained that I wasn’t really quitting work and that I would return to the faculty to teach and write. So a student corrected himself and said I was “recycling.” But another student said, “That’s gross! You make the Dean seem like a used can or plastic bottle. Let’s just say he’s being repurposed.” A third student said, “He’s being reinvented.” A fourth: “renewed.” A fifth, “No. Reimagined.” The farther this went, the more that the students’ words lifted my outlook: more active, purposeful, newer, and creative. Words matter. The core issue about life after work is that whatever follows “re-“ entails some kind of vision about what is next. What’s your vision?

Friends who have expressed fears about life after work either have no vision about what is next or don’t like the vision they do have: leisure, boredom, slow physical decline, etc. That’s where Teddy Roosevelt’s saying becomes relevant: TR’s key words are, “my choice.” You have considerable choice in the matter of life after work. Though issues such as health and investment returns loom larger, a decision to remain active, to sustain what is important, and to move along are qualities that distinguish people who successfully create a new life after work.

  1. I highly recommend Candice Millard’s book on this journey, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. [ ]
  2. This is advice that he did not exactly follow. He offered these words upon his first retirement as Chairman and CEO of P&G in 2010. Then the board re-hired him as CEO in 2013 to turn the company around. He will transition to Executive Chairman of P&G in November. [ ]
  3. Many thanks to Scott Beardsley for recommending this book. [ ]
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Darden Commencement Speech: “The hat you wear”

[Context: This is a farewell of sorts, since I’m stepping down as Dean of Darden this summer, and returning to the faculty. I started this speech wearing the traditional mortarboard hat. When I got to the part of talking about the baseball cap, I ad-libbed, saying, “Someone said, you can’t wear that hat at a UVA graduation.” I replied, “Well, yes I can: I’m the Dean.” As the speech progressed, I put on one hat or the other, to underline the properties of each.]

Part of my job this afternoon is to set a tone for the proceedings—and ideally for your lives going forward. They call this a “commencement” after all. It is a beginning of your career after Darden.

In American slang, we talk about wearing hats as a metaphor for shouldering responsibilities or expressing a point of view. We might say, “wearing my hat as a parent,” or “wearing my hat as a soccer coach,” or “wearing my hat as the CFO,” as a lead-in to an opinion or analytic insight. Typically, one uses this metaphor to validate the authority or expertise for the statement to follow. Today is a good day to reflect on the hats or points of view you acquired at Darden.

I processed into this ceremony wearing the traditional mortarboard. This particular hat was given to me by my mother, Marjorie Williamson Bruner. She wore it at her graduation as a newly-minted Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Chicago in 1933. And she wore it over several decades of graduations as a professor of English. She was a woman of great depth and considerable gumption: in addition to English, she could read several languages. She could play two musical instruments. She earned a Ph.D. in a day when professional work was not something that women did. She taught thousands of students how to write and speak better. She was married to my father for 51 years; she bore and raised five sons, all of whom went on to do their best work. And she still found time to serve on the local public school board for the better part of two decades. So when I wear this hat, I feel embraced by the spirit of a scholar who was in the world. It is this theme that I wish to underscore in my final send-off for Darden graduates, the theme of the scholar in the world.

This is a hat styled after the headgear of medieval scholars. It is thoroughly impractical and never worn outside of occasions such as this. It is ornate, formal, and traditional. It stands for schooling, visions, concepts, theories, ideas, curiosity, and critical thinking. It links us back to the Renaissance, when the Western world awoke from 1000 years of poverty superstition, anarchy, and barbarism. Wearing this hat is one way of reminding ourselves that, as John Dewey said, the barbarian is just a generation away and that education is the first bulwark against the barbarian. Universities and scholarship played a crucial role in the rebirth of civilization through critical thinking, debate, evidence-based research, and publication of ideas. From that standpoint, putting on this hat periodically is very satisfying.

But I’ll understand if you choose not to wear this hat to work. For there is an alternative that represents some compelling values. The American baseball cap fits better, shades the eyes better, and suits the current sensibility. It is ubiquitous in the United States, and indeed, around the world. It stands for practicality, simplicity, informality, comfort, and above all, action. As Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” The baseball cap is about execution.

Most of you probably own a baseball cap. And most of you will probably leave behind your mortarboard as you leave Darden today. Keeping one hat and leaving the other is a troubling metaphor to me. Will you keep the action-taking and leave the discipline of ideas and critical thinking?

Let that not be so. Take both hats with you, at least in spirit: a hat of thinking, and a hat of doing. Never leave either one behind. The managerial world is full of action that is thoughtless: the “Ready, Fire, Aim” kind of action-for-its-own-sake. Remember the mortarboard as a symbol of the need to think before you speak and act.

The mortarboard is a reminder to you that:

  • You will do better asking questions than answering them. Indeed, you can actually manage a company the way my colleagues lead case discussions, by asking questions.
  • You will do better by learning rather than knowing.
  • You will do better making meaning rather than simply taking the meanings provided by others.
  • You will do better by challenging assumptions rather than passively accepting them.
  • You will do better reading intentionally rather than surfing aimlessly.

You cannot be a person of effective action without also being an athlete of the mind. Train yourself relentlessly. UVA’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, was an exemplar of this.

The baseball cap is a reminder to you that:

  • The world needs your recommendations for action-taking.
  • The world needs you to run toward, not away from, society’s problems.
  • The world needs your robust moral voice—robust is the operative word.
  • The world needs you to lead.

You need both hats to survive and prosper in the world you face. Together, these hats make a great partnership. They will shield you from all kinds of business weather and will comfort you in the face of adversities. Hang on to both hats!

Good luck to you this day and forever more!

Thank you.

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Commencement speech, UVA 2015 “Go where you believe you can do your best work”

[Some context: I gave the commencement address at University of Virginia on May 17, 2015. UVA’s commencement stretches over three days, with a Valedictory address (given by comedian Ed Helms), a commencement address for graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences (given by Governor Terry McAuliffe), and a commencement address for all other graduates (given by me).  The video recording of this speech may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bd2qWp_B7MA.

I have blogged or spoken before on the general topic of going where you can do your best work (for instance, see this)—that subject is fertile ground for graduating students.  In this talk, I develop further the idea of “best work.”   I drew inspiration for this speech from various sources, which time and space would not allow me to express right in the speech, and therefore offer some annotations in the text that follows.] 

Rector Martin, President Sullivan, Visitors, distinguished guests, members of the faculty and staff, and the Class of 2015: [ 1]

I am grateful to the Graduation Committee for this opportunity to speak to you. And I understand that I’m the first faculty member to speak at Commencement in many years. It is tough to follow an entertainment celebrity and the Governor of Virginia both of whom have given remarks on this stage in the last 48 hours. I agree with them about the lamentable events visited upon UVA this year. I agree that higher education is critical to the future of this Commonwealth. What more can be said?

I feel like the late Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth husband. I mean, I know what needs to be done. The challenge is to make it interesting. [ 2]

So I will take up a new theme and invite you to picture this: a young girl falls down a rabbit hole and embarks on a fantastical journey. She doesn’t seem to feel lost, but she is looking for directions. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland describes the point at which Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat. Alice says:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

From this exchange comes the adage, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” [ 3] Today is a good day to reflect on these themes of limitless possibilities, of seeking direction, of taking roads, and trying to get somewhere.

Around this time of year, friends and loved ones ask students, “Where are you going?” “What’s next?” “What do you intend to make of yourself?” You’ve probably received all sorts of advice, much of it unsolicited and pointing in different directions: fame, fortune, fun, and so on. The big question is, where should you go with your life?

My advice is this: You should go where you believe that you can you do your best work. One could deconstruct that sentence in fine detail; but today, focus on just two words, best work. These are radical in orienting you to a high standard. And they imply the existence of a compass — one you can turn to in every wonderland you stumble into. Its “true north” is something called “best work.” Your time at UVA has given you the outlines of the compass and true north. Your challenge in the days to come is to fill in the details.

The word, “best,” directs you to think about what you really value, how you define success. Here’s where the lures of fame, fortune, and fun usually crop up—these are the conventional view of success. But there is a different way to think about your work: what is “best” is necessarily service to a calling. Many of you graduating today have a job lined up; and others don’t. But all of you do have a calling, which is to live a life that is worth living. [ 4] To “get a life” is not about getting a job; it is about getting a calling. This is hard work: it takes courage, wisdom, strength and grace. Making a living is hard enough. Making a calling is even harder—and more fulfilling. [ 5] It is gained by going where you can do your best work.

A calling is felt, not seen. One knows a calling imperfectly, as if viewed through a glass darkly. One’s best work is observable. A calling is a sense of intent. Best work is the instrument of that intent. Calling is mission; best work is implementation.

There are many in the world-wide UVA community who garnered all the trappings of conventional success, but did so as a consequence of their service to a calling. Some have jobs at the very top of their field where their service as leaders is prominent. Others served a calling in equally important, but less obvious, ways. Let me cite some examples.

Within the faculty and staff at UVA we have many who inspire us by the way they have lived out their calling: Kenneth Elzinga, Dennis Proffitt, Ed Freeman, Marva Barnett, John Colley, Amanda Mills, Pat Lampkin, and so many others that time would not allow me to tell. These exemplars found their best work to be in one field and at UVA for years.

Other sons and daughters of UVA traced their calling down unexpected paths:

· Will Shortz delights millions of readers each day as the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times. One might not guess that he graduated from UVA’s School of Law in 1977.

· Carolyn Miles is the CEO of Save the Children. She is taking action to address the endemic deprivation faced by millions of children in poverty. One might not guess that after graduating from Darden, she started out in consumer marketing.

· Toby Cosgrove graduated from UVA’s Medical School in 1966 and was inspired by new concepts of health care delivery. He moved beyond his job as a surgeon to follow a calling into general management. Today he is the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic.

· Michael O’Neill majored in art history and served in the U.S. Marines. Then he followed a calling into the turnarounds of several large banks. He is taking action to save jobs and to restore confidence and stability in one of the largest financial institutions in the world as Chairman of the Board of Citigroup.

Among all such exemplars, I see several attributes:

“Best work” comes from within. If you’re waiting for a mentor or headhunter to tell you what to do, forget it. You must listen for the still, small voice of a calling.

“Best work” is persistent. It does not give up easily. It is a marathon, not a sprint. And when it hits an obstacle, it may drop back to pursue the calling from a different angle. Or it may morph over time. For instance, at some points in life one’s best work is to be a learner and follower. At other points your best work will be as a teacher, leader, or mentor.

“Best work” harnesses serendipity. It may dabble, experiment, and try stuff—all with a purpose. Creative writing and curiosity-driven research are kinds of purposive wandering. Therefore, “best work” may well not occur according to a well-defined plan or within the conventional boundaries of a discipline or career track.

“Best work” sparkles most in the details, such as the ending semiquaver of a soprano; the wrist action of a brain surgeon; the just-right word of the poet; or the moment a business leader takes to encourage an employee. [ 6]

“Best work” heeds no venue. It gets done both in the big-title corner offices, and at the entry level of an organization or among friends, family, and neighbors. It could entail serving a community, nurturing loved ones, or repairing some nagging interpersonal problem. A calling always begins with the question, “How can I serve others right here and now?”

“Best work” makes meaning. And meaning about what you do—no matter the uncertainties you face–gives courage to take sensible risks. Followers need leaders who give meaning. [ 7] Meaning creates resilience, with which to withstand setbacks and failures. And finding meaning in life’s big transitions supports one’s sense of growth.

“Best work” leaves the world a better place. It isn’t sufficient just to “do no harm.” Your best work will serve justice, mercy, integrity, joy, and other virtues that constitute a society in which we’d all like to live.

“Best work” is its own reward. It is not triumphal. If you frequently need applause or a gold medal to keep you going, you’re likely not at your calling. If your only goal is a pile of money, you will never achieve it. [ 8] Financial success is really a reward for other achievements such as invention, efficiency, strategic insight, or delighting someone. Service to a calling is about doing something well. [ 9] And it summons achievements that transcend any resume, achievements that build character and soul, around which your eulogy will be written. In the final analysis, “best work” may not feel like work at all.

The foundation of your future “best works” was forged here with bonds of friendship, with teaching and scholarship that stretched you, and with the acquisition of leadership skills that can never be written in code but are now in your DNA. Celebrate that. Smile. You came here to learn how to be a leader and you leave here with the obligation to lead in your life.

So the Cheshire Cat got it about right: each and every one of us is bound to wind up somewhere if we walk long enough. But just getting somewhere does not fulfill the faith placed in you by family, friends, this University, and even by the aspirations of our founder, Thomas Jefferson. You should go where you believe that you can do your best work. And the best work serves a calling. Everything else — money, fame, power, leisure — is ancillary; don’t waste your life chasing those. And hopefully thanks to UVA, you don’t have to — because you now have a compass. Follow it. Trust it. And, if like Alice, you stumble into a rabbit’s hole from time to time, there is no need for the Cheshire Cat. The direction is to be found in your calling.

Thank you for the privilege and trust you have given all of us to be your teachers. We now become your students. Teach us about the future, which we now bestow to you with all blessings.

Now, go do your best work.

Thank you.

  1. I am indebted for helpful comments from David Aufhauser, Bobbie Bruner, and Jonathan Bruner. [ ]
  2. I wondered whether students would know who Elizabeth Taylor was (she died in 2011). The ensuing laughter suggests that this was no problem. I suspect that it is an old joke, and heard about it from Peter Gomes, who used it in a sermon in 2000. [ ]
  3. Carroll never actually wrote this, though it is commonly attributed to him. And it has spawned derivatives, from Henry Kissinger (“If you don’t know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere”) to Yogi Berra (“If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else”). [ ]
  4. Peter Gomes made this point in a sermon. [ ]
  5. This point is well-argued by Michael Novak in his book, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life. [ ]
  6. And as Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details.” [ ]
  7. This point is well-argued by Rudy Karsan and Kevin Kruse, in their book, We. [ ]
  8. I suspect that this idea has many precedents.  For instance, John D. Rockefeller, the richest man of his day said something similar. [ ]
  9. Writers as different as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King, Aristotle, and Confucius have said as much. [ ]
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Choosing an MBA School: the Principle of “Five Friends”

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn

Taken at face value, Rohn’s statement is preposterous. Who you are is a consequence not only of your current personal relationships, but also of chance (for instance, were you born into a wealthy family and/or prosperous country?), inherited capabilities (such as intelligence, athleticism, verbal or artistic skill), and life experience (such as war, illness, discrimination)—as well as people who influenced you in the past but are not with you today (such as grandparents, grade school teachers, youth coaches). Most importantly, are humans chameleons? As some of the great autobiographies (Gandhi, Mandela, Malcolm X) reveal, you can will to be different from those around you. Each of us has at least some say in the matter of who we are.

Yet Rohn’s maxim seems so relevant. It recognizes the great influence of one’s peers. Parents everywhere ask their children, “Who are your friends?” because parents know that friends can steer behavior. “No man is an island,” as John Donne wrote, we are all part of a larger fabric of relationships. Most importantly, if you can choose with whom you hang out, that choice can be a tell-tale of significant preferences and direction.

The idea of the “five friends” resonates with me, because at this time of year, business school applicants from around the world are choosing who will be their friends for the next couple of years. Some admitted applicants reach out to me for advice or with questions. To my regular surprise, few of them consider the impact of the prospective “five friends” with whom they will spend their time in business school. This is a serious oversight. Let me explain why and then offer some questions that the admitted applicant should ask.

You should care about the “friends” with whom you will spend your time in business school for several reasons:

· Learning. In graduate school, you learn more from the friends around you than from the faculty. After all, it is graduate school; it is tougher; the expectations for you to figure things out for yourself are higher. The faculty are there to facilitate, provoke, inspire, and evaluate. But students in graduate school do more of the heavy lifting of learning than in undergraduate school. In any of the professional graduate disciplines such as law, medicine, or business, you are not only learning about tools of the trade; you are also learning how to conduct yourself as a professional: you acquire expectations for high performance; you learn how to communicate effectively; you adopt an action-orientation; and you sharpen your ethical foundation. So much of this important learning is social. At Darden, we explicitly harness that fact in the way we teach and structure our programs: students are assigned to learning teams and sections within which cutting edge business concepts are explored in depth; nearly 45 student clubs yield extensive opportunities to exercise leadership.

· Network. An MBA program affords the opportunity for you to forge deep relationships with classmates, faculty and staff members, and even alumni of the school. This kind of social capital can prove to be crucially important in future years when you need insights, introductions, or advice in dealing with opportunities and challenges. At Darden, the purposely-small scale of our programs promotes deep bonding and learning. Our alumni respond actively to outreach by students. And our faculty often rank #1 because of their willingness to work closely with students. By the time a student graduates, he or she will have made an acquaintance with virtually everyone in the class, and with faculty and staff members.

· Brand. The behavior of your “five friends” in future years will polish or tarnish your own reputation. Though you may have nothing to do with the subsequent behavior of those people, the public perception can be powerful. You must be comfortable with the “five friends” you acquire today and with the prospect of whom they will become in the future. Our admission process at Darden goes beyond mere academic potential to consider indicators of character. We require students to sign on to UVA’s Honor Code as a condition of enrollment.

I want to emphasize that the wrong way to contemplate a choice of school based on the “five friends” principle is to pursue elitism. Nothing about elitism ensures personal growth. The right way to implement “five friends” is by finding a school in which your peers will stretch, challenge, coach, and bolster you. Through your peers, you should grow in confidence and competence.

So, what the “five friends” notion ultimately means is that the admitted applicant should give serious consideration to several questions that bear on learning, network, and brand. Answers to these questions can be gained from attendance at programs for admitted applicants, typically held by each school this spring.

1. Do you want to learn through engagement with other students? Though I have made the argument that you should want to learn from your peers, some people simply prefer the anonymity of the lecture hall or the online course—this carries the lost opportunity of engagement with others. If the answer to this first question is “no,” then stop here; the rest of the questions will be irrelevant to you. Darden’s MBA programs actively harness the collaborative learning among students.

2. How selective is the school? Most of the 15,000 institutions in the world that award degrees in business are “open enrollment” schools: if you can pay, you can be admitted. In 2013, only 55 schools in the world admitted less than a third of their applicants. In recent years, Darden has admitted about a quarter of its applicants.

3. On what attributes does the school select applicants? You should be able to see some dimensions that matter to you, because you will almost certainly be stretched in those ways. At Darden, we look to compose a class of students who bring diversity, intelligence, leadership, integrity, and business potential, among other attributes.

4. Do I get energy from the other admitted applicants? Do I like them? Can I learn from them? Some of the attributes of excellent teachers include positive motivation, an ability to connect at a personal level with the learner, and a perspective that broadens the learner—so it is with the best peers.

The “five friends” principle invites the applicant to consider the influence of future peers in selecting which school to attend. This influence is a vitally important contributor to the success of one’s learning experience in business school.


Dreamers and Leaders: An Appreciation for the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!…I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream…” — Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

These words, excerpted from King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. during the March on Washington, are the heart of one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century. Ironically, “I have a dream,” was an extemporaneous addition to his prepared remarks. The gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, stood behind him and as King was approaching the end of his speech said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” So he set aside his prepared remarks and concluded his speech with a riff that he had used before in his preaching and speaking. It is the riff, more than the prepared section that propelled his speech to immortality. What is it about dreaming that proved to be so stirring?

Pragmatism is one of the defining attributes of American culture. Phrases like, “So what?” and “Prove it” are hallmarks of life here, especially in business. Ideas, theories, and especially “dreams,” invite attack. Envisioning the future is especially risky. Woody Allen brimmed with irony when he said, “I have seen the future. And it is very much like the present, only longer.”

The night before the speech, one of King’s advisers, Wyatt Walker, told King, “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream…It’s trite, it’s cliché.” King’s speech met with only mild approval in editorials immediately after. Others were less impressed. Anne Moody, an activist from Mississippi, wrote, “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had ‘dreamers’ instead of leaders leading us. Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less dream.” [ 1] Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography: “Who ever heard of angry revolutionaries swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily pad pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I have a dream’ speeches?” Within five years, King’s movement, based on nonviolent resistance to racism, had been marginalized by race riots, black radicals, and a drifting mission: King’s opposition to the Viet Nam War and his advocacy of guaranteed incomes cost him the support of political moderates and conservatives.

Yet over the ensuing years, the “I Have a Dream” speech gained iconic status. Some would attribute this to King’s oratorical skills. King anchors his plea to end racism in quotations from sources guaranteed to move the emotions of a broad spectrum of listeners: the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the Constitution. Like an Old Testament prophet, he seems to speak for a people and their destiny. Simple phrasing and the use of repetition ensure the grasp of his essential points. And his baritone voice conveys authority.

But rhetorical devices alone don’t explain the significance of the speech. Its power lies in the word, “dream.” In it, King expressed a vision of a better world, a vision that gained traction and unarguably changed attitudes and government policies. In this, there are lessons for business students and professionals.

  • The first task of a leader is to shape a vision toward which others can strive. Leading is about galvanizing people—but around what? “Where there is no vision, the people perish” says the proverb. [ 2] If you intend to lead, you must have a dream or vision. Otherwise, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,” as Lewis Carroll wrote. America may have a pragmatic culture, but pragmatism without dreams is rudderless.

  • The dream comes from looking over the horizon. Former business professor Theodore Levitt once said, “The future belongs to people who see possibilities before they become obvious.” Business marketers understand this intuitively. But there is a critical nuance here: visionary leadership is not opportunism. A naïve reading of the biography of Martin Luther King or of other transformational leaders such as Gandhi, Mandela, Walesa, and Gorbachev, might lead one to conclude that “circumstances changed; he saw his chance and took it.” No, we respect these leaders because they changed the circumstances by virtue of a courageous look at the way things might be as opposed to the way they are.

  • Not just any dream: the vision must be compelling enough to withstand challenges, discouragements, and obstacles. King and his compatriots faced laws, jail, police dogs, fire hoses, beatings, and pepper spray—yet they persisted. And the dream must be actionable, such as advocating the repeal of segregation laws and restrictions on voting rights. Dreams without a touch of pragmatism are effete. Ultimately, the dream must entail a call to action: “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”

  • Business needs dreamers. Think of Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Edwin Land, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison and the host of creative people who imagined fantastic alternatives to the way things used to be. Martin Luther King shows us that imagining an alternative to the way things are is foundational to creating a better world. Business is a necessary part of creating that world. Dream about a better world and then shape a vision for others to follow. Do you value a clean environment? Safety and peace? Equal opportunity? Abundant food and shelter? Health and well-being? Employment for the willing? A good standard of living? Freedom? … Dream on and shape a vision for leadership.

This is my last blog post as Dean of Darden in which I celebrate the life of Martin Luther King (for earlier items, see this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this). Why have I done this? Why bother? First, Martin Luther King Day is a wonderful teachable moment in which to reflect on leadership. I believe that business education should, first and foremost, aim to develop a new generation of leaders (not merely technicians!) to tackle the new problems that come along. King’s life helps us envision the leadership we need. Second, I value norms of tolerance and respect for diversity in society and therefore hope to promote these norms. Needless to say, the growing diversity of American society demands such tolerance and respect in the rising generation of business professionals. Schools that ignore diversity and inclusion do a disservice to their students. The Darden School itself is a work in progress: the high quality of our educational experience depends importantly on our inclusion of diverse students, or, as Darden Professor Martin Davidson says, “embracing the weird.” Finally, I draw strength for my own work as a leader from the example of Martin Luther King. My 33 years as a teacher lead me to conclude that you become the examples that you study. I have a long way to go to become like King, but as he would say, I’m keeping my “eyes on the prize.”

Pause for a moment this Martin Luther King day to reflect on his example and how you might benefit from it.

  1. Both quotations are from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/09/martin-luther-king-dream-speech-history [ ]
  2. Proverbs 29:18 [ ]
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Leading in a Moderate Key

“Meg Greenfield, the late Post editorial page editor, counseled against writing in “High C” all the time. By this she meant that an editorialist or columnist who expressed equally noisy levels of indignation about everything would lack credibility when something truly outrageous came along that merited a well-crafted high-pitched scream. We now seem to be living in the Age of High C, a period when every fight is Armageddon, every foe is a monster, and every issue is either the key to national survival or the doorway to ruin.” — E.J. Dionne Jr., “To a Healthier Democracy,” Washington Post, 12/20/14

No doubt about it: society values the transformational leader, the One Who Gets Things Done and pronto. In the popular mind this leader is epitomized by General George Patton, Steve Jobs, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, people who lived with passionate intensity—they led in “high C.” Is this a good model? I think not and as 2014 draws to a close I want to encourage you to lead with the entire tonal scale, not just high C.

The U.S. and the world have certainly had a lot to fret about in 2014: Ukraine, Ebola, deflation, tragic accidents, alleged police brutality, political polarization, etc. Given the volatile environment, it is understandable that enterprise leaders confront high uncertainty in their spheres. In the face of this volatility, the standard response of leaders is to raise the pitch and noise level of their exhortations; in my salad days I worked for a shouter who eventually burned out. Some enterprises may warrant this. But as a running coach once told me, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Leading at high C is not sustainable indefinitely.

Nor does it promote high performance. Research reveals that transformational leadership is less about high C and more about reticence and determination. For instance, in his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins wrote, “leadership is not just about humility and modesty. It is equally about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great….leaders display a workmanlike diligence, more plow horse than show horse.” (p. 30, 39)

Nor does high C promote wise and just decisions. Shortly after the publication of the Rolling Stone article about UVA, I received a volume of email and two direct phone calls from alums: someone (most of UVA’s leaders) must be fired right away to correct things. “Don’t we want to serve justice?” I replied. “Let’s get the facts first. We’ve commenced two formal investigations.” The writers and callers would not be mollified: heads must roll. Later, when Rolling Stone retracted the article because of factual inaccuracies, just one of the high C’ers contacted me, abashed at the new news. All universities need to bring “ferocious resolve” and “workmanlike diligence” to the problem of sexual abuse on campus. But let’s not succumb to “ready, fire, aim.”

Nor does high C necessarily promote trust. To lead with high C and then not have the case for urgency can sever the bonds between leader and followers. Infrequently, some leader will show up on my doorstep with hair on fire: “something must be done about _____ and I’m ready to lead it; will you back me?” On closer examination the facts don’t support the cause—or worse, the facts reveal that the proposed cause is self-serving to the leader. In such instances, one feels betrayed or manipulated or reminded of William Butler Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Mind you, the best can be passionately intense too—but the difference is that they have the case for their cause.

Nor does high C promote attention. On an airplane recently, the flight attendant literally shouted the flight safety briefing over the sound system. I had to cover my ears; and I suspect that others did too. Later she explained that she did this to make people listen. I observed that she failed to command our attention, though she did succeed in annoying some of us. In another instance, I co-edited a journal with a professor at another school: every single email he sent to me carried the little “urgent” icon. His high C but mostly unimportant messaging wore out my attention to him.

My wish for readers of this blog in 2015 is a future of tonal modulation. May you as leaders bring low C’s, middle C’s, and (a few) high C’s as needed. The ability to modulate will grant you more attention, better performance, more sustainable effort, more trust, and wiser and more just decision-making.  Easy does it.

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