Shades of Gray

Last week, our TOM case protagonist, Jamie Bonini, bravely faced the entire RC class in Burden Auditorium and shared the lessons he learned on the Tritec engine project. I caught my breath when he owned up not only to his professional mistakes, but also to a personal mistake. He wishes he’d paid more attention to his family during the period covered by our case. His voice and body language conveyed a deep sense of regret that he’d largely missed out on five years of his sons’ lives. If he could do it over again, he would fight against losing people from his team and he would take some parenting classes to better understand what his children needed from him.

I wanted to rush the stage and thank him for touching on a topic I feel is conspicuously absent at HBS. Every day in class we critically analyze the actions taken by protagonists in high-pressure business situations. We try to learn our lessons from their wins and their mistakes, because one day we could very well be in similar situations. At least, we learn professional lessons. Very seldom, however, do we touch on personal lessons.

The Taran Swan LEAD case caught my attention early in the semester for this reason. Undoubtedly, she did a fabulous job at Nickelodeon.

However, she stands out to me as someone who made some serious personal trade-offs. She, as well as two other women on her team, lived in commuter marriages, and she risked the health of herself and her baby against physician’s orders. If she is an example of the kind of sacrifice one must make to succeed by HBS case standards, I’m not sure I want it, thank you.

Perhaps the classroom is not an appropriate venue in which to discuss the personal lessons we could learn from our protagonists. This is, after all, Harvard Business School, not Harvard Life School. We’re learning how to be successful leaders in the business world. Yet, I find myself feeling like a large part of my curiosity about how to succeed in business is unsatisfied.

Not a week goes by that I don’t wonder to myself, “What kind of personal sacrifices do the heroes in our cases make? Am I willing to make them? And do I have to make them to be a successful leader?” I’ve tried to look outside HBS, at the people I consider mentors, and I see them struggling with similar questions about work/life balance. I’m not getting answers from anywhere.

Are we doomed to struggle and make sacrifices that we later regret? Or is there something that could be added to the HBS experience to better prepare us for this dilemma? Judging from Jamie Bonini’s foray into the topic, I believe there is a wealth of lessons we could learn from our protagonists about professional and personal trade-offs. I’m not sure how it could best be addressed at HBS, but I, for one, would love to hear more about managing life while leading in business.