Today I led the graduation exercises at Darden for the class of 2007. Here are some of my remarks.

The two Faculty Marshals of the class of 2007, Peter Rodriguez and Ed Freeman, were elected by a vote of the class that signifies the esteem that this class holds for them. This is one means by which students recognize teaching excellence at Darden. These Faculty Marshalls are rare and wonderful examples of the heart and values of Darden. Heart for teaching makes possible the long teaching group meetings and late nights to prepare for teaching; the extended outreach to students here at the Darden grounds and elsewhere; the zeal to get the latest idea worked into the course; the focus on the learner and the joy in his or her success; and dogged stamina: I note that some of our staff arose at 3:00 a.m. this morning to prepare for our celebrations. The high touch, high tone, and high octane experience we offer is not possible without a great deal of heart. Join me in congratulating Peter and Ed for their recognition.

Also with us today are Stuart Quarngesser and Harry Lewis, representatives of Darden’s first graduating class, the class of 1957, whose 50th anniversary we have celebrated this spring. Please welcome them. The Class of 1957 symbolizes for us the exceptional confidence and optimism with which the Darden School was launched. The students arrived in 1955, decades before the MBA degree had become “hot.” The School had no brand recognition, none of these facilities, and no alumni body. Many people simply wanted the School to serve the needs of the Commonwealth of Virginia and—so it was said, keep the best young managerial talent from migrating to those schools in the North. Yet the President and first Dean reached well outside of the Commonwealth to staff the school. As the reputation of the school rose, so did the size and geographic breadth of enrollments. In the first BusinessWeek ranking, we appeared in the top ten. A generous capital campaign built this new Darden Grounds. Today, the Darden School stands again on the threshold of major advancement in reach and depth of its activities. We must dedicate ourselves to invest in Darden’s future so that at the Centennial, in 2057, the school will be stronger, better, and of greater service to the “world of practical affairs.” The Class of ’57 encourages us onward by virtue of their example as Darden’s founding class.

Class of 2007, you are exceptionally talented, brimming with high promise of good things to come. I note that 93% of you report jobs, the all-time high for Darden students at graduation. Though we cheer you, we all should cheer those who encouraged you to this day—your partners and spouses, your families, and especially, your parents and grandparents. Please join me in a round of applause for all of them.

I will always carry a special affection for the Class of 2007. You arrived a few days after my appointment as Dean. My first year as Dean was a lot like your first year: a lot of hard work, late nights, and at least three cold calls a day. I profited by your example and encouragement. Together we have seen a dramatic lift in the life of the school—very positive developments in curriculum, placement, recruiting, admissions, research, and the capital campaign.

This is a gala day. We are celebrating two years at Darden and a 50th anniversary. And I could add that last week, Virginia celebrated the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown Colony.

But today is not really about the past; it is about the future. All of the packing and arrangements this weekend suggest that we are in a great hurry to get to the future. What does the future hold? Woody Allen said, “I have seen the future. It is like the present, only longer.” He meant it as a cynical riff on the optimists among us. But in one important way I agree with him and think you should too.

Learning and managing well are fundamentally about self-discovery. The future is like the present, only longer, in the sense that the achievement of your hopes and dreams depends on continuing something like the Darden experience in the years to come. The secret to learning is not to wait for someone to tell you the answers, but to figure things out for yourself. What we teach at Darden is how we teach, a process of questioning and challenge, of debate and persuasion, of dealing with ambiguity, of running up and down blind alleys—because all of that is part of the essential experience of personal discovery.

Great teachers ask a lot and tell little. They ask a lot in the sense of stretching their students and they ask a lot in the sense of inquiring rather than telling. There is a rich tradition for this that stretches all the way back to great teachers such as Socrates, Jesus, Hillel, and Confucius. Socrates had the habit of walking around town and bugging people to learn through his questions. Confucius spoke in short aphorisms. Jesus used short parables to make his points. Hillel was challenged to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot and said, “What is hateful to yourself, don’t do to somebody else. That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go study.” This is a model for all great teaching, brief and to the point, ending with the immortal injunction, now go study.

The minute that you unshackle yourself from the expectation that someone else is going to lay out the meaning of things for you, you become much more effective and compelling. You enable all of the attributes of leadership: the ability to recognize threats and opportunities; to shape a vision; to enlist others; to communicate; and to take action. Once you realize that learning is about self-discovery, you are ready to give the gift to others.

The big implication is this: you should manage others in the same way you have been taught at Darden. Like your professors, you should ask a lot and tell less: question, stimulate, help, irritate, guide, and goad. Expect that your employees will explore, inquire, experiment, and analyze. The greatest managers don’t tell; they engage others to learn. The day of the corporate command-and-control generalissimo is past; in the best practice organizations today, groups of professionals work together like learning teams to figure things out. Make knowledge important wherever you go; state problems and encourage pragmatism and experimentation. Insist on candor: if work is poor, don’t tell your employees it is good. Candor breeds learning.

If you carry forward the important lessons of Darden, Woody Allen is right: the future is a lot like the present, only longer. You should be proud that you are here today and about to receive the diploma from what many people regard to be the world’s most challenging MBA program. You’ve done it. From this day forward, teach yourselves. Live the values of self-discovery so that at your 50th anniversary in 2057, Darden will celebrate your careers of distinction, integrity, and joy.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 05/20/2007 04:11:00 PM