Going back to Harvard fills my brain with energy and thirst for knowledge. The school has a special atmosphere and this time of year seems to make it even more pronounced. It is learning time at HBS.
As an alumni, you get to come back every 5 years at the best time of the year to be in Boston. You create a nostalgia for enjoying the city in conditions we absolutely never had before. Warm and sunny weather. In fact, there is temptation to just hang out in the lawn and enjoy the beautiful weather rather than attending any sessions.
As much akin to a lizard as I am, with my desperation to get sun all the time, nothing can keep me away from learning at the HBS sessions at reunion. The learner in me has a hard time choosing between way too many options but eventually a topic tends to emerge. I thought I was going to be attending a few sessions about strategy and ended up focused on authenticity and happiness. Yes, they do that at Harvard.
Vulnerability and Leadership
After the dean’s address on a magnificent auditorium that did not exist there 1 year ago (yes, I was also there last year), Shilpa convinced me (with ease) to attend Professor Scott Snook’s session on Authentic Leadership. He started by sharing with us the video with Coach Cheeks so we could discuss what made him so authentic as a leader. I won’t spoil that part of the fun, you will have to go watch the video. Stop now and go.
We were impressed to see his impulse to step in to the rescue in a very immediate fashion, to provide support to the end. By acting vulnerable, Coach cheeks allowed Natalie to re-gain her strength. He was behind her, not in front of her. He supported her, did not replace her.
Empathy is not Sympathy
Many people confuse the two. In the most self-explanatory video, Brene Brown explains the difference between these 2 concepts. Empathy is feeling WITH people. It has no silver lining or attempt to make it look better. In challenging times, people want empathy, not sympathy. It is often not about the response but rather about the connection.
We finished off with tips for leaders around self-disclosure, setting the right tone for your team to then apply reciprocity and share in a similar fashion. A key highlighted trait of a good leader? Listening.
Crafting Your Life
From leadership we went to a Design Thinking workshop on a new course being developed around “Crafting Your Life”. This course has the goal to connect alums and students and help share topics that may be handy for students to know about as they try and define what they want from their lives.
I had fun applying design thinking methods to designing a HBS course. I was even a bit proud. All the professors put out an energy that is hard to achieve. You could see passion emanating from their hands as they described what we would be doing. I was inspired to think of i) what students may want to know from alumni, ii) how would people share them, iii) what would block you from sharing.
I got a great deal out of getting other people’s responses and cluster in areas of interest. In fact, I felt a bit more normal. Nowhere in our table’s cluster was financial management – oops! But mental health, career and lifestyle choices were everywhere.
Before the day ended, I had a session focused on creating the fearless organization. Even though I felt more practical advice could have been given (rather than just the identification of the problem), I enjoyed a few topics (and I guess I will have to buy the book at some point).
When was the last time you failed to speak up, even when you really should, because you feared looking stupid? It is human nature – no one wants to look incompetent and intrusive. So many times in meetings people do not offer ideas, they do not ask questions. That is how we cope with that risk. I have to admit, I often risk stupid questions, but I also sometimes fail to do so for fear. I wonder if I should know the answer.
People often have a high threshold for when they feel psychologically safe – a context where it is safe to take interpersonal risks. But there should be no excuse not to speak up, especially if you are concerned about the wrong steps you or your company may be taking. As a leader, it is key to establish an environment where everyone is willing to express their concerns and risk saying something less smart or welcome. Fear was a common feature in Volkswagen or Wells Fargo. The organization needs to be fearless:
- Frame the work: make it safe to learn and fail. This means a leader who invites engagement, asks good questions and poses the first challenge, broadens and deepens the conversation;
- Respond productively: in the face of challenge or problems, the leader must show that is encouraged behaviour.
A Study on Happiness
On the second day, I focused my sessions on happiness. Yes, you read well – not climate change, not entrepreneurship, not strategy. Happiness. The sessions were overbooked and clearly show how Harvard alums are in the search of being happy.
What matters in a fulfilled life
The professor drew conclusions out of a 80 yearlong study (the longest known) across individuals, trying to identify what it means to have a happy and healthy life. The happiness track most likely requires separate articles of their own but I leave here my executive summary.
Relationships. Social connections were demonstrated to keep people happy and healthy. Specially the warm connection kind. On the other end of the spectrum, loneliness was also shown to be toxic and drive earlier cognitive and physical decline. At first, they doubted their findings. And then accepted correlation was as powerful as the impact of smoking or high blood pressure in being healthy.
Experiences. The best things in life aren’t things that we buy. I actually see this as I do the gratitudes with Little Girl C. 99% of the times she talks about things she does with us or at school. Not gifts she gets. The moment you get a new experience you don’t every go back to being the same. And each experience is unique to each human being.
On this basis, preventative medicine means date night, calling friends, family dinners, amongst others
The Science of Happiness
This was the last session I attended. It was all common sense. But as Voltaire would have said, common sense is not always so common. I will leave here the 5 tips I received there to be happy, and then come back to you with a reflection
Permission to be human: especially for men, who typically do not allow themselves to be vulnerable. When we suppress negative emotions we are also trapping positive ones. It is not about resignation, but about active acceptance.
Courage is not about not having fear, it is about not having fear and going ahead anyway
Dealing with Stress: stress is not the problem, but rather the amount of it and the lack of recovery. It is like going to the gym and work-out. Muscles need to recover in between.
Giving: money, time or kindness. When you give, research shows you receive just as much. Natan is Hebrew for giving. It is written the same in reverse. Because it is perfect balance. And giving may not be just to others, but also to self.
Meaning: People anguish about lack of purpose. Teens or grown-ups. The meaning of life and meaning in life. The later can be found as people define what their calling is in their job. Is it laying bricks, building a wall or building a cathedral for the glory of God?
Expressing Gratitude: I have spoken about this one extensively and don’t seem to have gone wrong. People that keep a gratitude journal or imagine things they are grateful for on a regular basis are happier, more optimistic, more likely to achieve their goals, kinder to other people and healthier.
When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates
2 days learning at HBS
I spend 2 days immersed in knowledge. I just can’t get enough and wish they made me come back every year. On top, I got to meet old friends, strengthen lost relationships and discuss all of the above with people with similar but different experiences. I chose to have deep and meaningful conversations, aligned with the topics I chose. And adding emotions just made me learn better. Thank you HBS for another 2 days of learning.