What Are the Elites To Do

Professor Kevin Sharer

You may wonder why this subject has anything to do with you as you work hard at school, try to find a job, and balance a hopefully fulfilling and busy personal life with everything else that is going on. For most of you, let’s not even talk about your current balance sheet and cash flows. So yes, you are pretty far from the folks at Davos, the Aspen Institute, and all the other places the global elite gather. They are likely reflecting on why a large enough part of the liberal democracies’ populations voted to cause the cataclysmic political events of this year on both sides of the Atlantic with potential for more to come. Despite the oceans of press and what laughingly passes for analysis, we cannot be absolutely certain what is at the core of this reaction. We can be sure, though, that growing income inequality coupled with middle class economic stagnation, unresolved immigration issues, loss of jobs, and governments that are seen by many as both out of touch and overly intrusive are in the mix. Yes, liberal democracies and capitalism have lifted more people out of poverty than at any time in history, the world despite some glaring problems is safer than ever and standards of living in the West and increasingly China are in absolute terms better than the past. Yet major discontent exists and is rising for so many. The elites of business, academia, media, the arts, and government are seen by many as surprised and out of touch.

Back to the original question. What does all this have to do with HBS students now? Of all the coveted academic credentials in the world, HBS ranks very high. In fact, it is hard to come up with many that are more prestigious. As such, graduates are generally and rightly assumed to have an inside track to elite status, and through their hard work and success often earn their own place at the table. In this analysis, elite is not a pejorative. It is a recognition of the fact that by virtue of economic success and/or power and influence of position many HBS graduates attain the upper reaches of society. The problems and most importantly the responsibilities of the elite will soon be yours. The current group is handing you a very mixed bag, and hopefully you want to and will do better. The world needs you to do better.

HBS’s mission is to develop leaders who will make a positive difference in the world.

HBS’s mission is to develop leaders who will make a positive difference in the world. We try to pack your twenty months at HBS to the brim and sometimes beyond with all the facts, critical thinking skills, frameworks, leadership learning, and experience that we can to prepare you for the world of practical affairs. However, we do not explicitly address as broadly as society demands the challenges, issues, and responsibilities of the elite to any significant degree. A course alone would not do it. It would need to be woven into the fabric of the experience. My hunch is that HBS will rise to this need and challenge in the coming years, but you will not be at HBS then. So, what can you do to not repeat the mistakes of the current Davos crowd as you make your way sooner than you think into their ranks?

In my experience, all problem analysis and resultant action plans must be grounded in a firm grasp of reality. This seems obvious, but in the world this is much harder to do than it seems, and more often than not the relevant players have different and sometimes wildly different views. So first embrace reality. If your reality is that this problem is only temporary, created and inflamed mostly by politicians, and will soon go away or recede, you will find yourself in the company of many. This thinking however seems defensive, rooted in denial, and almost certain to backfire. Hopefully your reality is that these problems of societal polarization, unsustainably distributed wealth, and government disconnect are very real and urgent. In fact, it may be the greatest set of challenges your generation will face. I encourage you to learn as much as you can, realize you will soon own these problems, and begin to decide what you personally can and will do to address them.

Your opportunity and ability to address or contribute to these problems will vary over the course of your life and the roads you travel. So, where to start? One thing is bedrock. Be a good citizen. This sounds easy and straightforward. What do good citizens do? They are informed. They vote. They pay their taxes. They care about and demand competence from what we call the commons of education, public safety, infrastructure, and government. Good citizens stand up, are counted, and get involved to assure the health of the commons. These are grave and sacred responsibilities embraced by too few. Next, get outside your bubble and engage. Our societal atomization is well established, recognized, growing, and destructive. Many aspects of modern life seem designed to put us in our comfort zones. In fact, so many of us live in echo chambers which just reinforce our beliefs. We live in echo chambers at every level and facet. It is not a conscious, evil choice but almost a force of gravity. You have already started by coming to HBS. Some questions to ask yourself: what do I do to consciously hear and truly try to understand different and even uncomfortably different views? How do I go to places and really engage with people truly different than me? Do I even realize how limiting and harmful the pathways the normal course will propel me along can be? There are no easy answers here, and it will be going against the wind to make progress. Growth only happens outside your comfort zone, and no more than here.

The last and most difficult and potentially most impactful thought is to lead. You can lead from your business perch by directing money, lobbying, encouraging, and making it easy for your employees to volunteer. You can and should use the power, influence, and visibility of your position to make things happen. Too many leaders shrink from this opportunity and obligation thinking it is hopeless, deciding it is not their business’ responsibility, or due to a lack of courage. Do not be one of them. Next, lead locally. The number of good, widely impactful, and open to newcomers nonprofits is very large. Start as soon as you can by joining the board or a support group. They will want your time, contacts, passion, and eventually money. But it is worth it. I have had this experience and can testify how deeply satisfying and impactful to many it can be. Be head of the PTA, join the school board, or sponsor a charter school. Being directly and impactfully involved in public education is one of life’s highest callings. Finally, do not leave politics to politicians. Get involved now. Life is long. You may even aspire to elected office. Do it. Some of you will reach the highest levels of society and be around the table when vital issues are decided. It will be sooner than you think. Come to that table fully ready by being a good citizen, owning the problem, having the widest understanding of society earned through your personal experience, and listening to and understanding the experiences of others. The time to start is now.

 


Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.