Doing good versus just being good

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Dan Akerson, currently chairman and CEO of General Motors, recently gave a commencement speech for the business school graduates of Columbia University that touched on an interesting theme for the leaders of tomorrow: the concept of doing good out in the world versus just being good.

Sounds strange, I know, coming from the top guy at an automaker that in his own words described GM this way: “A one-time colossus that ruled the corporate world, that set the standard of success for business schools to study, that became the case study for failure. GM was broken and nearly died.”

Yet he stressed that men and women of goodwill, working together, did something that is all too rare today: they rose above their own particular worldview to serve what he called “the greater good.” While many might argue whether the taxpayer-funded bailouts that saved GM were worth it – or even proper business strategy – Akerson argues that’s almost beside the point. The rescue of GM, to his mind, exemplifies something that’s often missing in the business world today.

“As holders of an Ivy League MBA [master of business administration], your prospects look good for an exciting, challenging and lucrative career; [but] what a shame that would be, if that’s all you intend to do with your education,” he stressed.

“I hope you came to this great university with more in mind than getting a degree that would help maximize your earning power,” Akerson noted. “Let me be clear. Making money is good; I'm all for it. I have been blessed in ways I never imagined, and I hope that everyone here has the same opportunities and success that I’ve enjoyed. But society needs more from you right now. Some of the institutions that our society relies on are in serious disrepair, if not outright broken.”

[One of those is the transportation industry, which will see half of its current workforce retire over the next decade. Professor Denver Tolliver discusses that and other transportation workforce concerns in the clip below.]

Akerson emphasized that the “Great Recession” exposed so much that’s wrong with some of the fundamental structures of our nation. “The economy broke and teetered on failure; our banking system ground to a halt; our housing market collapsed; and millions of jobs evaporated. And while things are improving, complete recovery is a long way off.”

He also believes stepping up to put all of this back in good working order isn’t as hard as it seems, either, because the U.S. has been here many times before.

“Looking at this class, I can’t help but reflect on the days when I was handed my undergraduate and graduate diplomas,” he said. “The economics of the times weren’t much better, and there was plenty to make one worry about the future. Our country was in the midst of a protracted war in Vietnam, one that cost us about 250 young lives every week for roughly 10 years. I transitioned out of the military and into the civilian world at a time of high inflation, deficits, and interest rates – the days when the term ‘misery index’ was created. I lost classmates; I lost a roommate.”

Akerson noted that interest rates on home loans in the late 1970s and early 1980s approached 15% to 16%, while unemployment in 1982 almost reached 11%. “Our country seemed to lose its confidence in our institutions and its respect for them,” he added.

And at that time, amid all the troubling indicators, Akerson said he tried to formulate a life’s plan that would define who he was based on what he saw lacking in society at the time—leadership and service.

“They go together, hand in glove, because you cannot lead people or an organization without a commitment to serving them as well,” he pointed out. “This concept has guided my life and frankly, led me to accept this job at GM.”

[Noted logistics giant Lynn Fritz expressed some of the same sentiments during a speech two years ago concerning the challenge of carrying out humanitarian logistics efforts.]

To his mind, “leadership” is comprised of character, integrity, competence, and hard work. “It’s making the right decisions, not just the easy ones,” Akerson added. “It manifests itself in your relationships, your marriage, your family, your community and your company. And to lead effectively, you must serve your family, your community, your country.”

The most critical thing about leadership to his mind, however, is this: while being good is commendable, doing good is beneficial. “I urge you to put your country's interests above your own: get involved in your community; serve your fellow citizen; bring your intellectual firepower, your ambition, and your energy to making America the country we know it can be,” he stressed. “People who want to lead us forward start by serving others. To me, that is the stuff of heroes.”

One example Akerson pointed to is the late Arthur Ashe, a world champion tennis player who blazed a trail in the sport by being the first—and thus far, only—African-American male to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon tennis tournaments.  

Ashe went on to become a philanthropist, a fighter against South Africa’s Apartheid racial segregation system and an AIDS activist. But Akerson stressed that while Ashe was a hero to many for his professional achievements, those didn’t count much to Ashe himself. 

“As he put it so well, ‘True heroism is remarkably sober, very un-dramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost,’” Akerson noted. “I hope you find within yourselves the heroism that Ashe describes. Our nation is counting on you.”   

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