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Remembering Harry Truman: The Importance of Service
August 3, 2011

When I recently traveled to Independence, Missouri, I was fortunate to visit the Truman Library and meet a group of young adults who had been elected as Truman Scholars. The
Truman Scholars program was created by the U.S. government in 1975 as a federal memorial to President Truman’s legacy. Each year, 60 college students are chosen from across the country in recognition of their passion for public service and potential to make a difference.

Preparing students for lives of service

I was so touched by what I heard and saw on that trip that I went on to study some of Truman’s writings. In a 1949 personal letter he wrote, “One of the difficulties with all of our institutions is the fact that we’ve emphasized the reward instead of the service.” He was especially concerned about how education was failing young people in this task.

I found myself sobered and awed by how Truman’s words still rang true some 50 years later. They solidified recent thoughts that had been roaming through my own mind about the increasing pressure in higher education to prepare workers and not citizens. I found myself challenged to think about how we at business schools can keep pushing the envelope on preparing students for lives of citizenry, service and profit-making. As many of the wisest business leaders I know can attest, these goals need not conflict. One’s life certainly feels most in harmony when they don’t.

Articulating our social purpose

Full-Time Kellogg Students  
It’s my goal to teach students about the good that comes from organization-building, market-making and service.  

After that weekend, I found myself even more aligned with Kellogg’s new purpose statement: To educate, equip and inspire leaders who build strong organizations and wisely leverage the power of markets for the betterment of all. In the process of finalizing this statement over the winter and spring, we had many internal discussions, some of which centered on whether or not to include the phrase “for the betterment of all.” Why not just stop after markets? It’s more pithy, and we’re not a public policy school after all, some reasoned.

I found myself reacting strongly to that question, asking what the point of business education is if we’re not working toward some greater good. Business is the dominant social institution of our day. As such, its effective functioning is critical to human development and progress. It is important to constantly remind our students and ourselves that the ultimate goal in developing corporations and markets must be positive social impact.

As the distance between Washington and Wall Street grows smaller and the world grows more complex, we will need more strong, well-educated leaders who are willing to sacrifice rewards for service when necessary. I can think of no better way to help than to educate, equip and inspire the next generation of leaders in the good that comes from organization-building, market-making and service. After all, according to Truman, “Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

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