Darden’s semester has come to an end. Last week, I spoke to the MBA Full Time students who were just concluding their first year. The air was full of congratulation and relief for the students. But I asked them to pause and reflect: when I welcomed them to Darden last August, I said “you must be present to win”—this phrase has been a theme of a number of my blog postings. So I asked the students, “What does it mean to ‘be present’?” Three of them spoke up: being present means to come to class and other meetings, to participate actively, to contribute usefully, and to help others. All that, yes; but I think there is more.

It is easy to marginalize the importance of being present. Woody Allen said that “80% of success is showing up.” Allen’s mockumentary, Zelig, is about an innocent nobody who craves approval and changes to fit in wherever he goes. He manages to show up at many of the historical turning-points of the 20th Century and thereby gains fame. Another film, the withering satire, Being There, is about a simple gardener elevated to the circle of the White House by chance. The main character played by Peter Sellers utters the memorable line, “I like to watch.” Are just showing up and watching what “being present” is about?

The Darden Reunions, held two weeks ago, showed much more than just showing up and watching. Alumni came back to reconnect to classmates, faculty, and generally, the school. From what I saw, I would say they were there to reconnect with a part of themselves and a time of their lives that had great meaning—and to reconnect with a school that affords mastery and the discovery of meaning for new generations of students. Alumni offer advice, opinions, news, and commitments of support; they are mindful of their past and present experience. Through their presence, they reaffirm what is important and meaningful about Darden. In a similar vein, the best students I’ve known have a capacity to interpret the meaning of events in real time; they connect dots well and determine the significance of the emerging patterns. Being present is mindfulness.

That same weekend, hundreds of Darden students gathered to rehabilitate eleven houses in Charlottesville for the charity, Building Goodness in April. Of all the charities our community supports, this is my favorite. The work is exhausting and impressive. The students do more than show up: they get results. Being present therefore, is also about advancing a mission; it is about service.

Sometimes being present has no obvious result. Sitting through the night at the bedside of a sick child or aging parent can give a powerful abiding presence. The presence of the cop on the beat and the crew in the firehouse is important because of a readiness to act. In the brilliant poem about his own blindness, John Milton concluded that “they also serve who only stand and wait.” To wait on someone—to be present– is to be ready to serve.

Being present entails more than just “showing up.” One is present through active engagement, being mindful, serving some purpose, and standing ready to serve. My casual observation of perhaps hundreds of successful managers on the job is that they are present in these ways. I would amend Woody Allen’s aphorism to say that 80% of success in life is being present.

Darden has a lot to teach about being present. And I think our students get it. But I asked them to approach their summer jobs in the same spirit: to be present for whomever they work and to be present for Darden. I encouraged our students to speak up for Darden, to carry the word about the Darden experience to employers, prospective applicants, and the public. To be present for Darden also means to live the Darden brand: leadership, honor, integrity, strong work ethic, and high engagement—these qualities are what “high touch, high tone, and high octane” are about. Be there for Darden.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 05/04/2008 01:25:21 PM