The Three Graces for MBAs Today

Prof. Kevin Sharer

In his monthly column for the Harbus, Professor Kevin W. Sharer shares his thoughts on the issues facing HBS students.

The Three Graces is a famous marble neoclassical sculpture executed by the Italian artist Antonio Canova in the early 19th century. The graces are meant to represent the three daughters of Zeus, who personified mythological charities. What would be the graces that could best serve MBAs going out into the world of work in today’s hypercompetitive, enormously dynamic, and often unforgiving capitalistic market-driven ecosystem?

On top of the demands of capital and the market we can add the increasingly fraught, divisive, and angry world of public and even sometimes social discourse. This environment would seem to call for full armor in intellect, ambition, toughness, and aggression.

Reading the press and the proliferation of self-help, how-to-do-it books could lead you this way. Ray Dalio’s widely reported ideas around “radical truth” and “radical transparency” might come closest to capturing this zeitgeist.

Sure, being smart, self-aware, focused, and ambitious are necessary; but they are not enough. Moreover, taken to the limit—as too often happens—they can get in the way of key objectives of a leader, which include growing personally and professionally, earning the trust and respect of the team, and listening broadly and deeply to all the signals.

So, what three graces should we consider? The three that personal experience and lifelong observation bring to mind are humility, kindness, and respect. Why? Which behaviors actually manifest these traits and how do they affect my journey? Do I have to give up some things I know I need to make my way? Or are these just things to act out and not really represent the authentic me?

Let’s start with humility. The world so far has conspired to make you anything but humble. The best of the best. Brightest in your generation. Many applied, but you were chosen. Did we tell you again about what our great alumni do? Look at how clever, creative, and ambitious we are. The list goes on.

It might all be true. What also could be true is that although many of you have done remarkable and admirable things at this early life stage, it is early. As to HBS, there were three people at least who look like you who did not get in. Your good fortune, maybe? Family dynamics played a part, maybe? You know a lot about the world and business for someone your age, but what you have not experienced or do not know dwarfs what you do know.

So be boundlessly optimistic about the journey ahead, but humble about where you are, what you have done, and what you know. In fact, this is a good thought for life. Why? Because humility that is genuine is the platform for success and hunger for growth. It humanizes you and draws people to you rather than alienating your colleagues. It surprises people. As long as it is authentic and not humblebrag, it might be one of the best things to be. One last thing, you cannot fake it. People will know.

Who would not want to be kind? In the abstract, most of us would say of course we do. But the work world does not make it easy. The dictionary mentions kindness as being considerate and helpful. Having real empathy would seem to be core to kindness. How can we ever achieve the vitally important goals of achieving true equality of opportunity and the diverse and inclusive society we strive for without kindness?

Kindness does not mean lower standards, or less ambition. It means truly caring about people, being a role model leader as a coach rather than just a judge, creating welcoming environments, and being totally intolerant of bullying or demeaning behaviors in yourself or others. Truth and transparency are not easy to manifest consistently, but bringing kindness to their implementation will win the hearts you need to do the amazing things humans together are capable of achieving.

The best place to start is to genuinely care about the people you work with as individuals and not just units of production or words and images on a computer screen. A good sign of true kindness in individuals is that these people treat the people who work for them as well as they treat the people they work for.

The third grace of respect may be the most powerful of the three. Respect is a complex and broad thought and behavior. Respect for the journey of others is part of it. Respect for the humanity of others is part of it. Respect for the ideas of your colleagues is part of it.

Respect does not mean the full embrace of total individuation of all in the work environment. Healthy enterprises have strong social architectures, and table stakes for being an enterprise member is full embrace of the social architecture. Elements of the social architecture are expected behavior as a team member or leader, enterprise strategy, and enterprise mission. The strength and endurance of a diverse team united behind a strong social architecture is well established.

Listening is the best way to show respect. Listening means being fully present, focused, taking in all the signals from verbal to body language. It means understanding why points of view are held by understanding experience, facts, logic, and opinion. It means asking follow-up questions that invite openness and honesty rather than curt, shut-down questions. It means being active in replaying what you heard. Listening involves an ecosystem of signals and not just from one-on-one interchanges. Listening is anonymous all-staff surveys that ask revealing questions that are acted upon and fed back. Listening is respect for competitors, customers, shareholders, and regulators.

Listening is truly a big idea and not often done well. Become a great listener. Kind, humble listeners show maximum respect to all the elements of the ecosystem in which they operate.

The three graces do not flow from weakness but are among the clearest signals of strength and wisdom. Try them and benefit from their effect.

Professor Kevin W. Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for 12 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.