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Who are ‘Leaders Who Make a Difference in the World’?

Updated: Apr 3

Jigya Bhagat (MBA ’24) shares her take on the HBS motto as the class of MBA 2024 prepares to graduate.

Jigya Bhagat, Campus News Editor

I want to start by describing to all of you my dad’s mortifyingly endearing WhatsApp display picture. It’s a four-square collage – the top row has a picture of my sister next to the Wharton crest (she went to Wharton for her MBA) and the bottom row has me next to the HBS crest. This has been his picture for the last two years. Weirdly lovable as that was, it made me uneasy. What if I become a regular girl with a small dream of having a farm and a baby goat? Harvard’s motto – “We see in you a leader who will make a difference in the world” – is the same relentless refrain of expectation and potential. How do I ensure that I live up to my degree?

So, I did what any ex-consultant who hits a cul-de-sac would do  – I deconstructed the daunting mantra of “leaders who make a difference in the world” into three digestible chunks: a) What is a worthwhile goal?, b) How do I achieve it?, and most importantly, c) How do I navigate these lofty expectations? What's my mental model?

Over my two years here, the goal was to answer these questions for myself. Today I want to share my answers.

Reduction of pain, any pain, is a worthy goal

Lori Gottlieb, in her book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (passive-aggressive title, I know), says that while there is a hierarchy of needs, there is no hierarchy of pain. “Suffering shouldn’t be ranked, because pain is not a contest.” This hit home when my seven-year long-term relationship ended in EC year. Where I come from, I would’ve been told: “Look at everything you have, come up with a new 10-year plan, secure a job – and then let yourself cry.” To my surprise, my external environment here at HBS validated my pain instead of minimizing it. In letting me sit in my grief and allowing my feelings to expand, my friends, family, and professors constructed a new 3D frame that mapped my capabilities on one axis, my environment on the second, and on the third – my humanity. In acknowledging and making space for my pain, they changed my world.

So, if that’s the goal, what are the best inputs? 

Small acts of intentional change

The butterfly effect isn’t just a cool theory – it is a daily reality. Small acts matter. I remember when I nudged a junior employee at my prior firm to defy discouraging advice from her boss and apply to the top MBA programs in the US. To me, it was just another late-night pep talk, but to her, that vote of confidence changed her career trajectory. This intentionality, which I define as the density of thought per unit of action, has an outsized impact on the quality of our lives and those of others. Every day, by thinking and acting, we’re triggering the ripples of change. The greater the density of thought behind our actions, the greater the impact.

And finally, on how to navigate this daunting task: the most powerful mental model is to…

Embrace action amid fear without expectation of a result

Before school, I trained in a monastery in the Himalayas to become a yoga instructor. A big part of my training was to study the Bhagavad Gita, which is the main Hindu text. For context, reading the Gita is like trying to read Shakespeare in Parseltongue. I stepped out of the monastery, hiked across a bridge, hunted for a 3G signal, and finally googled, “Gita for dummies.” In this unsophisticated search, one powerful concept stuck with me – the idea of “action in inaction” and ”inaction in action.” While initially it might confound more than clarify, this principle elucidates the importance of action – any action – and the folly of inaction. Inaction is a disservice to all. Our duty is to act, but to do so without attachment to the fruits of our actions. And so, the question is, what causes inaction? 

In my two years at HBS, I have come to realize that fear manifests as a barrier to action. Do I seriously want to live on a farm alone with a goat? Or am I afraid of getting rejected by a job I want and people I like? While discussing the potential of tough tech incubators in India, Professor Jim Mathison told me that it looked like I was quitting before even trying. He also said fear is good because it tells you something about yourself. The trick is not to let it paralyze us, but to embrace action through fear and to achieve that by divorcing the action from the result. The focus of my search had always been on defining “leader,” “difference,” and “world,” not realizing that the core operating word in the HBS motto is “make.”

In reflection, the journey through HBS has been less about escaping the shadow of expectations and more about understanding the nature of “making a difference” or “changing the world.” Whether through reducing pain, small acts of kindness, or living through (not despite) our deepest fears, the path to making a difference is paved with intention, empathy, and a relentless pursuit of action, however daunting the road may seem. In HBS, I have laughed, I have cried, and most importantly, I have grown. The quest of “making a difference” transformed from a heavyweight title fight into an easy daily habit. So, as I stand here, I am no longer just the girl in the WhatsApp profile next to the HBS crest; I am a testament to the fact that making a difference is not about the size of your action, but the heart you put into it. And, just maybe, that is the most significant difference of all.

Jigya Bhagat (MBA ’24) is from New Delhi, India. She earned her Bachelor’s in Economics from Delhi University. She then spent three years at McKinsey & Company as a management consultant and then as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence responsible for setting up new businesses for a mid-stage tech venture, UrbanCompany. She loves to dance and watch Korean dramas. 

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