Laying Down the Gauntlet:

You hear it all the time around campus, whether it is in the burrito line in the Grille or in the Sandwich line in Spangler: “Hasn’t anyone here taken TOM before? Don’t they know the trials and tribulations of the batch system vs. the assembly line? Put some buffers near that bottleneck and, boy, we could minimize the throughput-time around here.”

We then elbow each other in the side and chuckle in our self-amusement, as we, like many others before us, pretend for a moment to wonder (while continuing to wait in-line) what it would be like if we were to apply what we learn in the HBS classroom to the actual community that is the HBS campus and beyond.

But, there is something more subtle and much more disturbing that is lost as we brush off these one-off thoughts and comments; it is the essence of what it is supposed to mean to be at HBS and the synthesis of the expectations that will be placed upon us at graduation: leadership that makes a difference.

We’re taught at HBS that we are being groomed to carry the “mantle of leadership” and we must one day live up to the challenge that lies before us to become “leaders who make a difference in the world.” It is then impressed upon us the importance to hone all of the traits and qualities that will be needed to be successful along this lonely leadership path we are about to embark upon: courage, initiative, persistence and, in the afterglow of the post-Enron world, integrity, just to name a few.

We read case after case of how there comes this magical moment in the protagonist’s life (usually, about page 3) when the right opportunity comes along, waiting to be seized and taken advantage of for increased profits for the firm and increased success for the protagonist. This approach seems to make things that much easier, for if we can learn how to identify those singular moments in our own careers-to-be, we just need to take that one, well-timed action and we ourselves might be the next ones to have a case written about to document our glorious post-HBS achievements.

However, what we are losing along the way is a very integral part of what it means to be a true leader: experience making a difference. It is not how you approach that one specific moment or opportunity that makes you a successful leader; it is how you have approached all the moments and opportunities that you encountered along the way that result in a successful leader.

So, getting back to the burrito line, anybody (although consultants do it best) can tell you what’s wrong with the situation and what could be done to fix it. But, only a leader has the other traits (courage, initiative, persistence, etc) to stand up and make those changes happen. So, the question is not whether anyone at Spangler has taken TOM or not. It changes to become whether you’ve got enough of the leadership qualities and the will necessary to do something about it.

Thus, if for nothing else than to be provocative, I’d like to publicly issue a challenge to myself and my fellow classmates: Make a decision that at some point before you leave here to take on a project (inside or outside the HBS community) where you practice to be a “leader who makes a difference.”

Make a list of five things you’d like to change – whether at HBS or in the larger community in which we live in – and put together a strategy to achieve at least one of them. Then, get after it – if nothing else, you’ll have something more exciting to talk about in that banking interview than all the other boring stuff everyone else has done. Redesign the Grille as if TOM mattered. Help take that after-school program to scale. Be a role model to a child who needs one.

If you need inspiration, it is not all gloom on the HBS horizon.

Leadership is happening all around the HBS community, albeit it is the exception rather than the rule. For instance, I know a group of RCs who recently approached the administration with an idea to make our HBS buildings more energy self-sufficient, proposing a project to optimize cost/eco-effective design. They’re developing proposals and going through the right channels to make change happen – exactly the kinds of actions that will be needed when they meet that next leadership challenge in the real world.

There is another group of RCs who have taken it upon themselves to develop creative proposals to decrease the amount of trash and waste that is produced both in the dining hall and in our Aldrich classrooms.

We use and consume incredible amounts of materials at HBS everyday and, as present and future leaders, we need to be on the edge of innovation to get the most “bang for our buck” (think Kaizen!) and simultaneously reduce our impact on the environment.

Both these groups didn’t need fancy titles or campaign promises to get involved, just the initiative and integrity that is the essence of leadership.

There are many others already engaged in this quest, whether it is VCO consulting, their own community service project or initiatives in various clubs, organizations and student government. They prove that the “not enough time” excuse is just a crutch – our priority at HBS should be learning to be leaders and it is US (not anyone else) who allow our focus on this priority to be clouded by the “herd mentality” of the internship search or the networking event or what have you.

It is unclear whether these or other initiatives will achieve their objectives and be embraced by the Administration, the student body or the larger community. In the end, we learn in LEAD that it is not only the tangible results which will be on our scorecards as leaders; it is the consistent pursuit of these results which will, over time, make a difference. Everyday, someone at HBS makes some base-line business decisions that affect all of us and these students took the initiative to do something about it and test whether what we learn in the classroom can indeed work as management tools in the real-world.

It’s not easy – leadership never is – but “walking the talk” is the minimum expectation that will be placed upon us (both by ourselves and those we serve) as future leaders. Let’s prove that we’re worthy of carrying the mantle of leadership that HBS is preparing us for and that the world so desperately needs right now.

Please send your reactions (questions, responses, etc.) to this article to the HARBUS at We are eager to see what you think.