Advice on Leadership and Self-Awareness

This piece is adapted from the 2016 convocation speech delivered to the graduates of the Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics at the University of Delaware.

Please allow me to speak directly to today’s graduates. You’ve secured a degree from a high-quality university with demanding academic requirements. You deserve to savor your accomplishment; you have earned it. But this milestone also presents a valuable opportunity for reflection. All too soon, you will enter a period of life that will pass very quickly. In what will seem the blink of an eye, you will be 30, 40, or even 50.

The foundational years of your adult life are exciting ones, rich in professional and personal opportunities. You will have choices to make and priorities to set. That is the essence of true adulthood in an open society: The freedom to make your own decisions and the maturity to accept responsibility for the consequences that come with them. Let me especially highlight a key attribute of a dignified adult: self-awareness.

Not one of you – even the least affluent among you – got here today without the help of someone else. For most of you, it was loving parents, who instilled in you the value of learning and who helped you shoulder the burden of paying for college. For others, it was an aunt, a grandfather, a guardian or some other special person who was there for you, who gave you a lift when you were down. And still others prodded you along at critical times, teachers who inspired you, coaches and band leaders who drew out your talents, siblings, cousins and friends who showed you the way. Never forget them or where you came from. As you prosper in your careers, keep in mind these people who loved and helped you before you had money or an impressive title.

When you reflect on what you want to do with the opportunities ahead of you, remember that it is possible to do well for yourselves and to do good for others. 

Just as I’ve urged you to be self-aware about what you owe loved ones and friends, it’s also critical that your horizon of self-awareness extend well beyond just them. Just as none of you got here today without the help of loved ones, neither did any of you get here without the support of a caring community. To be even more blunt, none of you are here today without some meaningful help from the state and national governments, which are the primary instruments through which we – as citizens of a free republic – express our concerns for our fellow Americans.

If you don’t believe me, consider the words of one of the two great Buffets’ of American business, in this case, Warren, not Jimmy:

I’ve had it so good in this world, you know. The odds were fifty-to-one against me being born in the United States in 1930. I won the lottery the day I emerged from the womb by being in the United States instead of in some other country where my chances would have been way different. Imagine there are two identical twins in the womb, both equally bright and energetic. And the genie says to them, “One of you is going to be born in the United States, and one of you is going to be born in Bangladesh. And if you wind up in Bangladesh, you will pay no taxes. What percentage of your income would you bid to be the one that is born in the United States?” It says something about the fact that society has something to do with your fate and not just your innate qualities. The people who say, “I did it all myself,” and think of themselves as Horatio Alger – believe me, they’d bid more to be in the United States than in Bangladesh. That’s the Ovarian Lottery.

Although we rightly celebrate the personal and economic liberties available to us in the United States, we insult our history and betray our own ignorance if we deny that much of what makes us proud to be Americans results from the efforts our government undertakes on our behalf. From providing health care for the poor and the elderly, to constructing the national highway system, from funding public education to creating excellent public universities like the University of Delaware, our federal, state and local governments deliver critical goods and services to us every day. These governments are not abstract entities, ruled by distant and illegitimate tyrants. They are instead the reflection of ourselves, a free people with the right to choose who adopts the laws that govern us.

If you think that your life has not been touched by the efforts of our nation’s citizenry as expressed collectively through our government, think again. Do you have an aging relative who is receiving nursing home care in a safe and nurturing environment? Do you have a friend whose medical condition has been treated because of a drug discovered by government research? Have you ever been helped by a police officer? Did you get student aid? And what do you think funded the invention and initial development of that thing now called the “internet?” And then passed a law that gave that invention to the private sector to exploit for profit?

Self-awareness of that kind is especially important in business. The vitality of our market economy and its ability to generate quality jobs is incredibly important.    But, too often, the self-awareness that Buffett exemplifies does not characterize the American approach to business. Many born on third base are convinced they hit a home run. Too often, what passes for management are easy short-cuts, which involve not innovation or long-term improvements in productivity, but externalizing the costs of business to society.

When you reflect on what you want to do with the opportunities ahead of you, remember that it is possible to do well for yourselves and to do good for others. That is the mark of real achievement in business and, more importantly, in life.

To that point, I have a suggestion as to a philosophical perspective you might apply when you embark on your careers in the business world. Although almost all of you have heard of Buffett, I am less certain that in your undergraduate education you learned the name John Rawls. But in his focus on the “ovarian lottery,” Buffett consciously assumes the posture of Rawls, who is arguably the greatest philosopher the United States has produced in the last century. Rawls’ vision of a just society was a large-minded and generous one. Although sensitive to the need for economic efficiency, Rawls believed that a nation ought to have regard for those of its citizens who had the fewest resources and who were the most disadvantaged.

When you apply your conception of the good – your idea of how a just society ought to be ordered – to how a business should be run or in your younger years, how to be an ethical young manager, Rawls’ perspective is one you could usefully adopt as your prism. To convince those who are skeptical of the need to be concerned about the least amongst us, Rawls, long before Buffett, stressed the lottery-like nature of life. Rawls asked us to engage in a thought experiment in which we each had a very high likelihood of being on the bottom rung of society, in terms of wealth, connections and other social advantages. With that risk in mind, how would we want society to operate?

The hungry child, the disabled person, the unemployed worker, each of these endure a fate that could have been, or could be, ours. Always bear that in mind.

As people now privileged to hold a degree from a respected university, what is most important to take from Rawls is a humble appreciation for the contingent nature of human fortune and a commitment to generosity towards those upon whom fate has not smiled so widely. The hungry child, the disabled person, the unemployed worker, each of these endure a fate that could have been, or could be, ours. Always bear that in mind.

In business, think like this: Am I creating a job that has working conditions, pay, and benefits that I would not want my child, relative or friend to suffer? Am I complicit in offshoring jobs to places where child labor is used, where workers have no rights and labor in unsafe and unsanitary conditions? Am I supposedly creating “stockholder value” simply by taking a regulatory short cut that takes a cost the business should pay – such as preventing the business from polluting the environment or potentially injuring consumers – to up our profits?  Am I amping up short-term profits at the expense of the business’s ability to innovate and create the longest term benefit for society? Put simply: Am I treating the company’s workers, consumers, investors, or the public in a way I would not want to be treated if I traded places with them?

The real test of a great businessperson is whether she can create value for herself and others, her employees and investors, without harming others or eroding our core values. Accounting gimmicks, denying workers’ health and pension benefits by purposely employing them in full-time part-time jobs at 25 hours a week and exposing consumers and society to health risks may put money in the pockets of certain people. But at what cost? And if you remember Rawls or Buffett, you will recognize that but for you winning the lottery of life, you could be the worker whose job got offshored, comes without benefits, or, as bad, is not safe or regarded by his bosses as worthy of respect. You could be the person whose water system is polluted and dangerous from irresponsible conduct by a corporation.

If you run your business and personal life with the idea in mind that your child could be in the position of the most vulnerable of those your conduct affects, you will profit in ways that can never be measured adequately in dollars. You will be the kind of person that your family, your community and most importantly, you yourself, will deem worthy of respect. And in a larger sense, by your collective commitment to being ethical and responsible, you will create much more durable value for society and instill greater public confidence in our business community.

In this same vein, make time in your life to give something back. Although the time pressures of early adulthood – new careers, marriages, and parenthood – might seem to preclude community involvement, find the energy and space to express your altruistic impulses. You enrich yourself as a person when you devote yourself to others. The day-to-day grind of work can be dispiriting, enervating, and devoid of meaning at times. Giving to others replenishes and fulfills.

A few final thoughts: Play life hard and take chances.

There will come moments when you have the opportunity to take a new job that is daunting, or to do a task that you’re not sure you can carry out. In my experience, that’s when it’s critical to take the risk, to be daring, and to push your limits.

Most important of all, act with integrity and have moral courage. Be brave enough to cry out when you see an injustice however small. Conscience and courage are like muscles; use them from the start and they will grow. Don’t expect to have them later in life if you don’t flex them continuously from the start; that’s not how it works.

You have much to be proud of today. You have accomplished a wonderful and challenging thing. Now, be true to yourself, to your family, your nation and your community. If you do, you will leave a legacy that will honor the special university from which you are graduating.

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Edition: July/August 2016
Filed Under: Culture, leadership