My first year of business school classes ended today. It felt a bit anticlimactic because I still have exams, papers and projects hanging over my head. Many of us first-years were talking about how fast the year had gone, but the discussions didn’t have any real resonance, and I didn’t expect any “a-ha!” moments, anything to stop me in my tracks.
Then my Ethics professor gave his goodbye speech.
All throughout the quarter Sankaran Venkataraman (he lets us call him Venkat) has reminded us that we are going to be the leaders in a very-near tomorrow. That our ethical discussions and frameworks matter because the decisions we make, ethical or unethical, will have a big impact on the greater world simply because of the education and influence we have attained.
Each time he said that, it shook me. In this academic bubble, it’s easy to forget exactly what we’re training for and the gravity of that terrifies me a bit.
Today, as his way of saying goodbye to us, Venkat read a speech that hit directly on that point and reminded us of the responsibility that comes with the positions we will all hold. And once again, his words shook me. They reminded me that I am not just at Darden to “succeed” in the traditional sense, but to get the skills and education I need to make any important difference. It’s so easy to forget that. It’s so easy to be afraid of doing something different.
Here’s the full text of Venkat’s speech (thanks to Jeff Rudnicki for passing it along):
“Think of this as my desire to plant a final seed in this course.
“I think you are among the most talented people in the world. The mere fact that you are in this room means that you are the best of the best in the world. If you were not so, you could not be in this room. In short, you are probably in the top .5% of the human population in terms of talent and ability. And you know I am not kidding…
“What does that mean?
“It means you can pretty much accomplish anything you want in your life, anything you wish and will.
“It also means you are limited only by your imagination and your courage.
“But you are also the luckiest people in the world. What are the odds of your being born in a poor family in India – very high – what are the odds… in China – very high —- Africa — Latin America…
“What are the odds of you being born in the particular family that you were born ? Very, very low. Think about the luxury of your life and the luxury of your choices…In short you are incredibly lucky.
“I submit to you that you have an obligation to give back to this world simply to pay back for you talent and your luck.
“I submit to you that a life spent as a principled business leader is a great way to give back. Business leadership in its many forms and shapes, on your own or with others, outside the firm or within.
“Will you be a principled business leader? I don’t know. You are limited only by your courage and your imagination. Principled leadership requires courage. It requires you to be better and more imaginative than your previous generation – from whence you came. It requires you to lead your organizations in a more efficient, more profitable, AND also in a fairer manner than your parents’ generation have. It requires you to leave a better world for your children than your parents are leaving for you. Now that requires courage and imagination, because you have to be willing to think and reason for yourself. You have to be willing not to be captivated by received authority often contained in your parents, in your bosses, in your peers, and in the ideas, ideologies, and spreadsheets of the dominant narratives of our times – namely that the purpose of business is to do this, that or the other! You need a very high degree of your own internal locus of control.
“Will you have the courage, the imagination, and that internal locus of control to be a principled leader? I don’t know. But there is one thing I worry about. Your Fear of Failure. For, if there is one thing that may hold you back it is this fear of failure. Look back at your own life. I bet that before every challenge you encountered in life you already knew, even before you started, that you were going to succeed. It was only a question of by how much and before how long. Indeed you CHOSE your challenges precisely because you already knew, even before you started that you will succeed. But those definitions of success were already defined for you – by the dominant authorities of your life – your parents, your teachers, your preachers, and the dominant ideas, theories, ideologies, and narratives of your era. Principled business leadership is different. It may require you to go against the prevailing dominant thoughts of your parents, your bosses, your peers, and those ideas and ideologies that define your era. But I hope you have learned in this course that you really cannot separate business and ethics. I hope you have learned that ethics is a way of life and business is just a part of it.
“True wealth, true freedom, true power, and the true power to do “good” come from being a principled business leader. In my view it is among the noblest of professions. It is the one profession where you can actually create wealth. Almost all other professions engage in merely redistributing wealth or managing it. It is truly a noble calling.
“There is a great tension in every human being’s life – that is the tension between being selfish and doing “good” for others. The Rabbi – Hillel – captured the essence of this tension beautifully thus:
“If I am not for myself, who is for me?
“If I am not for others, then who am I?
“If not now, when?
“Business leadership allows you be simultaneously selfish and to be good and to do “good.” It is truly a noble calling. The choice here is one of choosing between being a turkey or an eagle. There are too many turkeys in this world. And very little real estate. We don’t need more turkeys, not from this caliber of people. There is not enough space in this world for more turkeys. Yes, sometimes the life of the turkey can be nice. Yes, sometimes the turkey can fly up to the top of the fence and admire the view. Yes, and sometimes it is nice. But most of the time they come back to roost. And, for the most part, there is very little real estate. For heavens sake, even if you have to start out as a turkey, don’t stay a turkey for too long. You may become too fat and happy – only to end up on someone else’s dinner table.
“Look up at the sky. There is a lot of room to fly. And too few eagles. So much space to roam and soar. So few eagles. You are eagles – you should soar like one.
“You will enter a corporate career. Please don’t stay long in dead end corridors. Please do not get caught up in the dominant thoughts of those who only serve themselves and do lip service to the idea that human beings are as much for themselves as they are for others. I hope you will soar like an eagle. In a company or outside a company, but soar you must for you owe that to your talent and your obligation. To yourself and to your good fortune.
“You will have many opportunities to blaze trails in your life – too many. In the end it is all about courage. There is nothing more tragic in life than a talented human looking into the mirror at the age of 50 and saying if only, if only I knew, if only I had done this or that. Sometimes it can become too late.
“Again I borrow a quote, this time from Shakespeare. I find I am limited in my own linguistic ability to express some of the things I feel and believe, but I have found the old bard often comes in handy….
“This quote is from Julius Caesar…
“‘There is a tide in the affairs of men….(for some reason in those days they talked only about men – but this applies equally to men and women)…
“‘Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
“‘Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
“‘On such a full sea are we now afloat;
“‘And we must take the current when it serves, Or else lose our ventures.’
“You will have many tides and many ventures….. think about the eagle and the sky and the turkey and the mirror; your talent and your obligation. We are at an extraordinary moment in our lives – we have a tremendous opportunity to rethink the purpose of business, indeed the very idea of principled capitalism. This is your opportunity – not your parents’ opportunity – unfortunately they are stuck in their old and tired narratives. Now you go make this opportunity your own. Create new narratives of the purpose of business and of capitalism.
“I am privileged to have led such a talented group of people in this class. I am often grateful that in my life I can consort with such intelligent and energetic young people as you. I feel lucky.
“I wish you the very best in your lives. I know you will succeed materially. I wish that you will succeed substantively and spiritually as well.