COMMENCEMENT SPEECH TO MBA GRADUATES – WHICH I DELIVERED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ST. GALLEN ON AUGUST 25, 2012

OUR LINE OF WORK IS LEADERSHIP. I STUDY IT. YOU LIKELY ALREADY HAVE, OR YOU WILL, EXERCISE IT. BUT WE ARE NOT ALONE IN OUR FIXATION ON LEADERSHIP – THIS FIXATION IS A PHENOMENON THAT IS UNIVERSALLY SHARED. WE OBSESS ABOUT PERSONS IN POSITIONS OF OSTENSIBLE POWER, IMAGINING THEY SOMEHOW ARE ABLE, QUITE LITERALLY, TO CONTROL THE ACTION. IN THE U.S. FOR EXAMPLE, WE HAVE FOR MANY MONTHS NOW BEEN COMPLETELY CONSUMED BY THE CONTEST BETWEEN BARACK OBAMA AND MITT ROMNEY – THOUGH THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION REMAINS EVEN NOW A SEASON AWAY.
I, HOWEVER, AM A CONTRARIAN. I TRY TO PRY PEOPLE – IN THIS CASE YOU – AWAY FROM THEIR OBSESSION WITH THE LEADER, AND TOWARD TWO OTHER PHENOMENA, WHICH TO MY MIND, AND IN LINE WITH MY RESEARCH, ARE EVERY BIT AS SIGNIFICANT. THE FIRST OF THESE IS CONTEXT – AN ALL-IMPORTANT BUT LARGELY NEGLECTED EXPLANATION FOR WHY THINGS HAPPEN THE WAY THEY DO. I AM ESPECIALLY INTERESTED IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF CONTEXTUAL INTELLIGENCE, WHICH IN THE 21ST CENTURY IS EVERY BIT AS IMPORTANT AS THE OTHER INTELLIGENCES, SUCH AS, FOR EXAMPLE, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE.
THINK OF CONTEXT AS A SERIES OF CONCENTRIC CIRCLES – RATHER LIKE TOSSING A STONE INTO A POND AND SEEING ENSUE THE TYPICAL RIPPLE EFFECT. FIRST THE INNER CIRCLE, THEN THE NEXT SUCH CIRCLE, AND THE NEXT, AN EVER-WIDENING SERIES OF CONCENTRIC CIRCLES BEFORE FADING INTO THE DISTANCE.
SO, WE SIT HERE TODAY, ON THE 25TH DAY OF THE MONTH OF AUGUST IN THE YEAR 2012. IT MATTERS THAT THIS IS THE DAY ON WHICH YOU ARE GRADUATES! IT MATTERS THAT AS YOU STEP FORTH, MBA DEGREE NOW IN HAND, YOU LOOK AT THIS DAY IN A TEMPORAL SENSE, ONE THAT TAKES INTO ACCOUNT OUR DISTANT HISTORY, AND THE RECENT HISTORY OF, SAY, GLOBAL POLITICS AND MARKETS.
AS TIME MATTERS TO CONTEXT – DISTANT, RECENT, AND CONTEMPORANEOUS – SO DOES SPACE. WE SIT HERE TODAY IN THE TOWN OF ST. GALLEN, IN THE COUNTRY OF SWITZERLAND, ON THE CONTINENT OF EUROPE. THESE SITES – AGAIN THOSE THAT ARE IMMEDIATE AND THOSE THAT ARE MORE DISTANT – ALONG WITH YOUR PLACE OF ORIGIN, HAVE AN IMPACT ON WHO YOU ARE, AND ON HOW AND WHAT YOU THINK, YOUR WELTANSCHAUUNG. THE FACT THAT YOU ARE GRADUATES OF THIS PARTICULAR BUSINESS SCHOOL IN THIS PARTICULAR UNIVERSITY– AS OPPOSED TO ANOTHER IN ANOTHER TIME AND ANOTHER PLACE – ALLOWS FOR CERTAIN OPPORTUNITIES, AND SETS CERTAIN CONSTRAINTS.
AND, IF YOU ARE AMONG THE LUCKY ONES, THE ONES WHO ALREADY HAVE SECURED A JOB THAT LIKELY WILL SATISFY, YOUR PARTICULAR WORKPLACE AND YOUR PARTICULAR ORGANIZATION WILL COME TO DEFINE WHO YOU ARE, WHAT YOU DO, AND HOW YOU DO IT. WHAT I AM ARGUING, IN OTHER WORDS, IS THAT CONTEXT, CONTEXTUAL AWARENESS, MATTERS EVERY BIT AS MUCH AND MAYBE EVEN MORE THAN DOES SELF-AWARENESS.
I RECOMMEND, THEREFORE, THAT NOTWITHSTANDING OUR COLLECTIVE OBSESSION WITH LEADERS, AND WITH US AS LEADERS AND MANAGERS, THAT YOU LOOK OUTWARD EVERY BIT AS MUCH AS YOU LOOK INWARD. THE IMPORTANCE OF ASSUMING THIS EXPANSIVE VIEW IS ONE OF THE SEVERAL REASONS WHY LEADERSHIP EDUCATION AND TRAINING SHOULD, IN MY VIEW, BE LESS ABOUT DEVELOPING THE INDIVIDUAL PER SE, AND MORE ABOUT DEVELOPING THE INDIVIDUAL AS A MEMBER OF A SERIES OF COMMUNITIES WHICH, AGAIN, ARE IN SOME CASES IN CLOSE PROXIMITY, AND IN OTHERS MORE DISTAL, EVEN GLOBAL.
LET ME ADD THAT THIS EXPANSIVE SENSE OF CONTEXT IS ONE OF THE REASONS WHY THE LIBERAL ARTS PERTAIN EVEN NOW, AS MUCH TO STUDENTS OF BUSINESS AS THEY DO TO STUDENTS OF ANYTHING ELSE. SUBJECTS SUCH AS HISTORY, PHILOSOPHY, AND LITERATURE ARE UNIVERSAL IN THEIR APPLICATION, WHICH MAKES THEM ANYTHING OTHER THAN OBSOLETE, OR IRRELVANT, NO MATTER YOUR LINE OF WORK. SHAKESPEARE AND GOETHE AND CONFUCIOUS AND FREUD AND KUROSAWA AND PLATO AND PICASSO AND PROKOVIEV TEACH US TO BE EXPANSIVE, TO THINK BIG AND BROAD, RATHER THAN MERELY SMALL AND NARROW. TOGETHER THEY ENABLE US TO TRANSCEND THE HERE AND NOW, AND TO ENTER ANOTHER REALM ENTIRELY.
SO WHAT ARE THE ASPECTS OF CONTEXT THAT PERTAIN TO LEADERS AND MANAGERS IN PARTICULAR? FIRST THERE IS CULTURE – A CULTURE THAT HAS CHANGED THROUGHOUT THE COURSE OF HUMAN HISTORY, AND THAT CONTINUES TO CHANGE AS I SPEAK. WHAT’S MOST STRIKING ABOUT THIS CULTURE FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS CONVERSATION IS THE CONTINUING SHIFT IN POWER AND INFLUENCE FROM LEADERS TO FOLLOWERS, TO ORDINARY PEOPLE WHO, WHETHER IN THE CLASSROOM OR IN THE COURTROOM, IN THE WORKPLACE OR THE TOWN SQUARE, ARE FEELING INCREASINGLY ENTITLED AND EMBOLDENED – TO THE POINT OF PRECLUDING LEADERS FROM DOING WHAT THEY WANT AND INTEND. MOST OF THE EUROPEAN ELECTORATES, AND CERTAINLY THE AMERICAN ELECTORATE – ARE CASES IN POINT. VOTERS, FOLLOWERS, ALL WANT MORE AND MORE IN A WORLD IN WHICH THERE IS LESS AND LESS – AND SO WE THREATEN OUR POLITICAL LEADERS WITH EVICTION UNLESS THEY PROMISE WHAT THEY CANNOT POSSIBLY DELIVER.
THE SECOND COMPONENT OF CONTEXT TO WHICH EACH OF YOU MUST, REALLY MUST, PAY RELENTLESS ATTENTION IS TECHNOLOGY. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO OVERESTIMATE THE DEGREE TO WHICH TECHNOLOGY IMPACTS ON PATTERNS OF DOMINANCE AND DEFERENCE. PUT DIRECTLY, THE CHANGING TECHNOLOGIES ENABLE A DEGREE OF INDIVIDUAL EMPOWERMENT UNPRECEDENTED IN ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY.
SOCIAL MEDIA IN PARTICULAR ENABLE THE SPREAD OF INFORMATION. AND THEY PROVIDE A MEANS OF EXPRESSION. AND THEY ALLOW FOR CONNECTION. THINK OF SOCIAL MEDIA AS AN OPEN RESOURCE, AVAILABLE TO MOST ANYONE ANYWHERE – WHICH EMPOWERS MOST ANYONE ANYWHERE IN WAYS THAT HISTORICLALY ARE UNPRECEDENTED.
THE SO-CALLED ARAB SPRING IS JUST ONE OF THE MANY GLARING EXAMPLES OF WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN SOCIAL MEDIA ENABLE THOSE WITHOUT APPARENT POWER, AUTHORITY, OR INFLUENCE TO UNDERCUT THE EXISTING SOCIAL CONTRACT – TO UNCEREMONIOUSLY DUMP THE OLD GUARD IN FAVOR OF THE YOUNG AND RESTLESS, ARMED WITH LITTLE MORE THAN A SMARTPHONE. AS LEADERS WORLDWIDE ARE BEGINNING TO DISCOVER, INFORMATION, EXPRESSION, AND CONNECTION CAN BE COMBUSTIBLE MIX IN WHICH THE OUTCOME IS ACTION.
ONE FINAL POINT ON TECHNOLOGY IN PARTICULAR: IN THE NOT DISTANT FUTURE, IT WILL EMPOWER NOT ONLY THOSE HAVE-NOTS WHO ARE FAMILIAR, BUT ALSO THOSE WHO ARE UNFAMILIAR, THOSE IN DISTANT LANDS WHO EACH DAY HAVE ACCESS TO INFORMATION THAT PREVIOUSLY WAS INACCESSIBLE. AND … IF YOU DON’T THINK THAT INFORMATION IN AND OF ITSELF EMPOWERS THE PREVIOUSLY POWERLESS, WELL, THEN, THINK AGAIN. THE SIMPLE ACT OF BUYING AND SELLING, IS INCREASINGLY CONTROLLED BY BUYERS WHO HAVE IN HAND, LITERALLY, ONE OR ANOTHER DEVICE THAT ENABLES THEM TO COMPARISON SHOP IN THE ROUGH EQUIVALENT OF THE PROVERBIAL HEARTBEAT.
THIS BRINGS ME TO WHAT I CONSIDER THE SECOND SERIOUS OMISSION FROM THE LEADERSHIP CURRICULUM – IN ADDITION TO CONTEXT – THE FOLLOWER. FOLLOWERS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN MORE IMPORTANT THAN LEADERSHIP EXPERTS GIVE THEM CREDIT FOR. BUT, AS I JUST SUGGESTED, THEY ARE MORE IMPORTANT NOW THAN EVER BEFORE. PUT DIRECTLY, AS I IMPLY IN MY REMARKS, LEADERS ARE WEAKER THAN BEFORE, AND FOLLOWERS ARE STRONGER. ORDINARY PEOPLE ARE LOUDER AND NOISIER, MORE STRIDENT, MORE CRITICAL, MORE, IF YOU WILL, DEMOCRATIC IN THEIR EXPECTATIONS. TRADITIONAL PATRIARCHAL FAMILY STRUCTURES HAVE BEEN TURNED ON THEIR HEADS. TOTALITARIAN AND EVEN AUTHORITARIAN GOVERNMENTS HAVE BEEN REDUCED TO AN INCREASINGLY DWINDLING NUMBER. WORKPLACE STRUCTURES, PREVIOUSLY HIERARCHIES, HAVE BEEN FLATTENED. AND SOCIAL MEDIA GIVE EVERYONE A PLATFORM FROM WHICH THEY CAN, IF THEY WANT, HAVE THEIR SAY. LIFE, IN OTHER WORDS, HAS CHANGED – CHANGED FROM BEING SOMETHING OF A SPECTATOR SPORT TO A GAME IN WHICH EVERYONE WANTS, AND INCREASINLGY EXPECTS, A PIECE OF THE ACTION.
GIVEN ALL THIS ROILING AND RAILING, IT’S NO WONDER THAT YOUR DEGREE, THE MBA DEGREE, HAS BECOME IN THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS ITSELF AN OBJECT OF SCRUTINY. CERTAINLY IN THE U.S., THE DEGREE IS BEING RECONSIDERED AND REVAMPED AND REVISED AT MANY OF THE NATION’S BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS, INCLUDING AT THE HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL, WHERE, IN THE LAST TWO YEARS, UNDER A NEW DEAN, THE MBA CURRICULUM HAS BEEN EXTENSIVELY REDRAWN.
MBA PROGRAMS HAVE BEEN A QUINTESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF WHAT I CALL THE LEADERSHIP INDUSTRY – MY TERM FOR THE PLETHORA OF LEADERSHIP INITITAIVES THAT DURING THE LAST FORTY YEARS HAVE COME TO DOT THE GLOBAL LANDSCAPE. BUT WHERE HAS THIS HEROIC ATTEMPT AT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT – INCIDENTALLY, I MYSELF AM A CARD-CARRYING MEMBER OF THE LEADERSHIP INDUSTRY – GOT US? NOT NEARLYAS FAR AS WE HAD HOPED AND WANTED AND INTENDED SEVERAL DECADES AGO.
LET’S BE HONEST. NOTWITHSTANDING THE THRIVING LEADERSHIP INDUSTRY, THE TIMES IN WHICH WE LIVE ARE POCKMARKED BY LEADERS WHO SEEM NOT IN THE LEAST TO HAVE BEEN BETTERED BY THEIR GENERALLY SUPERLATIVE EDUCATIONS. IT’S CLEAR BY NOW THAT NO SCHOOL ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET, AND NO NUMBER OF LEADERSHIP COURSES, OR ETHICS COURSES, OR ANY OTHER KINDS OF COURSES, HAVE BEEN ABLE TO STEM EGREGIOUS WRONGDOING – IN POLITICS, IN BUSINESS, IN THE PRESS, IN THE ACADEMY, IN RELIGION, IN SPORT . . . I COULD GO ON.
TO TAKE JUST ONE STRIKING EXAMPLE – FROM FINANCIAL MARKETS – LIBOR. THE LIBOR INDEX IS WIDELY CONSIDERED THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT SET OF NUMBERS IN THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM. YET AS WE LEARNED ONLY RECENTLY, LIBOR RATES HAVE BEEN RIGGED FOP YEARS, JIGGERED IN WAYS THAT ADVANTAGED BANKS AND DISADVANTAGED NEAR EVERYONE ELSE. MOREOVER, AS JAMES SUROWIECKI HAS POINTED OUT, RIGGING LIBOR WAS SHOCKINGLY EASY. THE BANKS – THAT IS, THE PEOPLE RUNNING THE BANKS – HAD ONLY TO TELL SOME SIMPLE LIES. WHY? BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT BEING MONITORED OR REGULATED, THEY WERE NOT HELD TO ACCOUNT IN WAYS THAT WOULD HAVE MOTIVATED THEM SUFFICIENTLY STRONGLY TO TELL THE TRUTH.
THIS, MY FRIENDS, IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE FIXATE ON INDIVIDUALS AND IGNORE INSTITUTIONS. THIS, MY FRIENDS, IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE FIXATE ON LEADERS AND IGNORE FOLLOWERS. THIS, MY FRIENDS, IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE FIXATE ON SELF INTEREST AND IGNORE THE PUBLIC INTEREST. AND… THIS, MY FRIENDS, IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE NEGLECT THE LESSONS OF HUMAN HISTORY, WHICH TEACH REPEATEDLY THAT SELF-REGULATION DOES NOT WORK IN FINANCE ANY MORE THAN IT DOES ANY WHERE ELSE. MONTESQUIEU AND JOHN LOCKE AND JAMES MADISON UNDERSTOOD IT TAKES FOLLOWERS TO CONTAIN AND CONSTRAIN LEADERS – AND IT TAKES A CONTEXT CONTAINING CODES OF CONDUCT AS WELL. IT TURNS OUT WE ARE ALL NO MORE THAN MERE MORTALS – WE REQUIRE RULES AND REGULATIONS TO PUT A LID ON GREED, GREED FOR MONEY AND GREED FOR POWER.
NONE OF THIS IS TO SAY THAT LEADERSHIP – LEADERS – ARE UNIMPORTANT. OF COURSE NOT! BUT IT IS TO ARGUE THAT THEY ARE NOT ALL-IMPORTANT. AND IT IS TO SUGGEST THAT AS FRESHLY-MINTED MBA GRADUATES YOU BEAR IN MIND BOTH THE TRAJECTORY OF HISTORY, AND THE COMPLEXITY OF THE CONTEMPORANEOUS CONTEXT. YOU ARE GRADUATING INTO A WORLD IN WHICH EUROPEAN LEADERS HAVE BEEN CONSTRAINED AND ULTIMATELY UPENDED IN RECORD NUMBERS; IN WHICH AMERICAN LEADERS ARE FRAGMENTED AND FRACTIOUS TO A DEGREE THAT IS UNPRECEDENTED; IN WHICH A TYPICAL RUSSIAN STRONGMAN IS HAVING TO WATCH HIS BACK AT EVERY TURN; IN WHICH CHINESE AUTHORITIES ARE PRECARIOUSLY PERCHED BETWEEN MARKET AUTHORITARIANISM ON THE ONE HAND AND CITIZEN ACTIVISM ON THE OTHER; IN WHICH JAPAN HAS BEEN BESET BY AN INCESSENT PARADE OF PRIME MINISTERS; IN WHICH THE MIDDLE EAST OF 2012 BEARS NEARLY NO RESEMBLANCE TO THE MIDDLE EAST OF 2010; AND IN WHICH COUNTRIES THAT ONLY FIVE MINUTES AGO SEEMED ENTIRELY INTRACTABLE, SUCH AS BURMA, ARE SHOWING SIGNS OF UNHINGING PREVIOUSLY EXTANT RELATIONS BETWEEN LEADERS AND THE LED.
THE CHANGES OF WHICH I SPEAK ARE SEMINAL. AND THEY ARE GLOBAL. AND THEY ARE IRREVERSIBLE. NO INDIVIDUAL OR INSTITUTION IS IMMUNE FROM THE GLOBAL CONTAGION. SO IT’S UP TO YOU, GRADUATES, TO CATCH THE WAVE, TO RIDE THE TIDE OF CHANGE BRAVELY AND BOLDLY – BUT WITHOUT DELUDING YOURSELVES INTO THINKING THAT CHANGE IS YOURS COMPLETELY TO CONTROL.

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