In the recent movie, A Good Year, we have a film that one reviewer characterized as “shortish, picturesque, sometimes mouthwatering, generally light and definitely charming.” The story is that a very successful and rapacious securities trader, Max Skinner, inherits a chateau and vineyard in the South of France from his uncle, Henry, who was a loveable bon vivant. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Max spent his childhood living with Uncle Henry in that place. Now, in the process of preparing to sell the chateau to settle Uncle Henry’s estate, Max discovers the important things in life and decides to abandon his career in favor of the things that matter. Though I thought the film offered an overly-harsh portrayal of securities traders, I agree with the reviewer: it was entertaining to watch, with an obvious plot—except for one line that drilled into my memory.

In one of the flashbacks, Uncle Henry plays tennis with young Max and beats him. Even at his early age, Max is keenly competitive and does not take the drubbing well. He starts to sulk but Henry encourages Max to celebrate the victor and says, “even the act of losing can elicit great wisdom.” I stopped paying attention to the movie long enough to write down that line, for it evoked a reflection on graduate management education.

Darden and its peer schools attract the very best students, perhaps the top two percent of their age cohort (judged in intelligence, leadership, achievement and so on), people who have gotten where they are by a habit of winning, not losing. Some of them embody the famous quotation of football coach Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”—our collaborative culture at Darden challenges that notion. But still, our students have high self-esteem and high expectations for the future.

The engagement of these great students with graduate school is something to behold, a transformation in skills, competence, and intelligence—and self-awareness. The chief instrument of this transformation is the sheer challenge of graduate school. Elsewhere, I have written about why graduate school is hard—higher expectation of mastery, deeper concepts, and a more elite peer group. Good students will have it no other way. They want the challenge as a basis for measuring their own abilities and they want growth, a high return on their investment. The moral philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, wrote, “As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.” To know others is to know where we stand in relation to them. This sense of relative standing is important to one’s growth in leadership and is certainly the foundation for emotional intelligence. Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen, who spoke at Darden last year, emphasized that self-awareness relative to others is vitally important to the development of corporate leaders. Through self-awareness and mastery one is better prepared to serve others. Students of the quality we admit deserve from us the kind of self-knowledge that can shape them as leaders.

In this environment “winning” is harder and some of the greatest self-knowledge comes from losing. You may lose a debate over ideas in the classroom; you may lose an election to a coveted place among your peers; you may get a ‘B’ instead of an ‘A’; or you may lose a job offer in competition with another student. Equally, you may lose your cynicism, illusions, naivete, overblown expectations, and unquestioning embrace of flimsy ideas. This kind of losing is associated with growth as a truly educated person, especially growth in wisdom. I’m all for winning—subject to fair behavior and strict observance of the rules—but I agree with Uncle Henry that even the act of losing can elicit great wisdom. It is the growth in wisdom that will prepare you for professional life ahead.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 02/14/2007 10:03:49 PM