When Incumbents Challenge Their Own Legacy

This post originally appeared in Rolling Stone.

HOW DO YOU instill trailblazing change in a centuries-old institution? Start at the top.

Harvard University is entering 2023 on a spectacular high note. In December 2022, the university announced that its 30th President will be Claudine Gay, the first Black person to hold the position and only the second woman to do so in the institution’s 400-year history.

Gay is a political scientist and has been an educator in Government along with African and African American Studies. She is the current Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. Rising up the ranks, she understands the institution inside and out.

Working with challenger brands every day, I found this announcement particularly interesting. Despite coming under fire for white privilege legacy admission practices, Harvard arguably has the strongest brand amongst any school in the world. The appointment of a woman of color as President, and from within at that, marks a real change. It feels like a breath of fresh air that this old school definitely needed. It will undoubtedly have an effect on the brand of the oldest higher education institution in the U.S. and the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere.

In the business world, this is a landmark change — a legacy historical institution of the “old world” proves it has the capacity to change just like nimble startups do.

A challenger mindset isn’t uniquely associated with being small. It can and should be embraced by organizations as big and influential as Harvard. This philosophy urges you to look at your company through a critical lens — embrace diverse perspectives or write your own obituary. Harvard is demonstrating that even the most powerful institutions can be reinvented.

Are you brave enough to act on your values?

While Harvard’s decision to diversify its leadership is undoubtedly overdue, it takes courage to make a big change.

For example, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement of summer 2020, many organizations came under fire for virtue signaling. In a rush to align themselves with the cause, companies participated in Blackout Tuesday, planned shortsighted campaigns and released empty public statements. These surface-level activities raised the public’s suspicions and uncovered the obvious lack of diversity on boards and among executives of the biggest companies in Europe and the U.S. Words are one thing but real actions are another.

Acting in accordance with a core value, such as “diversity,” requires courage. It’s easier to post a black square on Instagram than it is to look inwards and address diversity and inclusion at the leadership level. Boards and executive leadership sometimes lack this courage, prioritizing the status quo — “we’ve always done it like this!” — over a strategic change that may cause ripples despite being the right thing to do. It isn’t a huge leap to assume there is a fear of change within an organization like Harvard.

To make a move like this, to hire the first-ever Black President, from within, after centuries of white privilege practices, requires bravery and leadership. It is the right thing to do. It is overdue. It is nonetheless a big change for an organization with Harvard’s history. I am confident, or at least hopeful, that Claudine Gay will enact meaningful change that will result in a level of discomfort needed to move forward. 

The bigger the organization, the longer it takes to shift it, but it is possible if the desire is there. With a change like this, Harvard has to invest in the outcome. With the history of the organization, there will undoubtedly be large expectations because this story isn’t just about Claudine Gay.

A lasting impact?

It’s a story bigger than itself — in a few months, in a few years, people will be looking at the impact this decision had. Was this the catalyst the industry needed? Did the student composition change? How are scholarships distributed? What happened to faculty representation? In what way did diversity permeate the institution or was there no impact?

Harvard must be aware of the implications of this landmark decision and how closely they will be watched, by Ivy League competitors contemplating similar moves — will there be trailblazing change followed by more disruptors? — and by all stakeholders involved.

Key takeaways:

1. Embrace change and act. You can’t seriously teach leadership if you’re unwilling to lead. Harvard’s credibility is dependent upon it.

2. Commit to your core values and be brave enough to act on them. Stick it out — long-lasting change takes time. You want to be around to see the fruits of your labour ripen.

3. This change isn’t just about you. Make it a model for others. Share, like Patagonia and others have done, what you aspire to do, where you’ve made progress and where you still have work to do. Use this as a catalyst for change across the industry and society, instead of just your own house.

Harvard is not the first in the world to reinvent its brand but it is unique in its scale, influence and reputation.

Embrace this inspiration. Even incumbents can, and must, challenge their own legacy.


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