Bias for Action and Moral Courage

Here are the remarks I gave to members of the Class of 2012 in our Graduation Ceremony this afternoon. My message regards taking action and moral courage.

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I would like to set the tone for this ceremony by inviting you to think about what really matters here at Darden. Some of you may think of the great concepts covered in class; others will think of the career opportunities that have opened up; still others will consider the great relationships you formed. All of these are important. Among these gifts of a Darden education is an enhanced ability to make recommendations and to frame action-taking. Let’s call this idea the bias for action. There is no single course in this at Darden; no specific test. And yet, lessons and exercises in action-taking permeated your time here. Darden is a professional school. Society evaluates us by our ability to produce graduates of competence and impact, people who act on problems of consequence. Let me tell you about it and offer some closing advice.

Ulysses S. Grant, one of the most successful generals in U.S. history, called the bias for action “moral courage,” and held that the will to decide and take action–even if you are tired, or if it is not convenient, or if someone is raining on your parade—Grant believed that this will to action distinguished the best leaders from the rest. Moral courage is the will to act. The historian, James McPherson, said that Grant himself displayed it and wrote, “This was a quality different from and rarer than physical courage. …Moral courage involved a willingness to make decisions and give orders. Some officers, who were physically brave, shrank from this responsibility because decision risked error and initiative risked failure.” The action-taking that we care about at Darden entails moral courage. But there is more.

The bias for action is about determination to see an action through. This spring, I met the deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. I asked him, “What attributes do you look for in leaders?” He replied, “Integrity is absolutely first. And fighting spirit is second.” There were other attributes, but those first two stand out. Integrity addresses the moral part of moral courage—doing the right thing. “Fighting spirit” is not a phrase common to business, but it certainly grasps the kind of determination needed to lead. And it reminds me of Darden’s citation for the Shermet Award, “responsible competitive spirit.”

And the will to act is about accepting some risk of exposure. Theodore Roosevelt wrote that, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

The will to act is hugely important to leading and managing an enterprise. Yet conventional thinking holds that professional management is preoccupied with analysis: running the numbers, making assessments, studying the facts, or valuing things. It is true that good analysis is a foundation for good management and that leaders should reflect before taking action. But analysis and reflection while necessary are not sufficient to true leadership. The business professional must always ask the next question, “So what?” What should we do about the insight that analysis affords? What action should we take? Where do we go from here? What do you recommend?

But you’ve had plenty of opportunity to address these questions. Our MBA program offers 500 to 600 decision points across the 21 months of the program—these come in case studies, simulations, group problems. The dreaded cold-call is all about bringing out your recommendations and plans for action. Through repeated exercise, our students grow in confidence and competence for making decisions and taking action. What I hear from recruiters is that our graduates are indeed action-oriented.

Consider the examples of these Darden alums:

· Michael O’Neill, Darden Class of 1974, was recently named Chairman of the Board of Citigroup, a poster-child for the critics of banking, finance, and capitalism in general. This guy has guts. He is a soft-spoken but tough-minded man who has assisted in the turnarounds of several large banks. He has a keen recognition of the interests of all stakeholders of an enterprise and holds that integrity and values remain paramount. He is taking action to save one of the largest financial institutions in the world.

· John M. Yeager, Darden Class of 1995 is Chief Financial Officer of Heal Africa. He is taking action to transform the status of women and advance public health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

· Carolyn Miles, Darden Class of 1988, is CEO of Save the Children, the leading independent organization creating lasting change in the lives of children in need in the U.S. and around the world. She is taking action to address the endemic deprivation faced by millions of children in poverty.

· Almost by definition, all entrepreneurs show remarkable capacity to take action. Henri Termeer, Darden Class of 1973, is the former CEO Genzyme, a leading biotech company. On his watch, he committed to finding treatments for certain “orphan diseases,” diseases that had not been addressed by the pharmaceutical industry because the small patient base offers a low financial incentive.

As these Darden alums show, the will to action that really matters regards a cause that is worthy of your character and training. Moral courage is not a sometime thing; it’s an all-the-time thing. You acquire moral courage by doing it; you strengthen moral courage by exercising it. Moral courage is like physical conditioning. You must work at maintaining it. Build moral courage in those around you by inviting their thinking, challenging their assumptions, and encouraging them to tackle worthy problems.

I wish you all moral courage to get after the problems that really matter, whether they be in your companies, your communities, or your nations. Whether you succeed or fail, make us proud of your efforts. There can be no better epilogue to a Darden education.

I wish you Godspeed and good luck.

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3 Responses to Bias for Action and Moral Courage

  1. Not a some-time address. An all-time great. Bob- you are so understated, even as you stand tall. Kudos to your ‘presence’ in leadership.

  2. Jose says:

    Dean Bruner – amazing blog. Very inspiring! ‘Bias for action’ is such a strong concept. Thanks!

  3. I was lucky enough to be there for the speech, and have now enoyed sharing the blog with friends and colleagues. Dean Bruner is a treasure – particularly to the exceptional Class of 2012 – but to all of us. ‘Bias for Action’ is literally a call to action – for Sunday’s graduates and to the country. Kudos for a job exceptionally well done. As noted in the blog, “Integrity is first” and Dean Bruner is an exceptional and decidedly elegant example of that charge. Lead On.

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