Wriston--Wharton

Wriston, Walter B.

2007

It is a great pleasure to be here tonight with so many friends of the Wharton School, an institution which has done and is doing so much to train the man and women who will have to manage our business enterprises. Each year the spotlight of public attention tends to focus on a different aspect of our society. Today, more and more people are coming to understand the crucial importance of productivity in our society, but not all of those who talk about it have analyzed what it is and how one goes about improving it.

One observer who has thought about it said: "The greatest opportunities for increasing productivity are surely to be found in knowledge work itself, and especially in management. The vocabulary of business-- especially of accounting--in relation to productivity has become so obsolete as to be misleading. What the accountant calls productive labor is manual workers tending machines, or actually the least productive labor. What he calls non-productive labor-- all the people who contribute to production without tending the machine--is a hodgepodge . . . Finally, what the accountant lumps together as overhead--the very term reeks with moral disapproval--contains what should be the most productive resource, the managers, researchers, planners, designers, innovators."

What Peter Drucker was talking about was that true productivity increases are generated by people who will take a risk, make a judgment and reap the rewards or pay the penalties. These are the kinds of people that have been the special province of the educational process at the Wharton School. It is not always an easy task to persevere in a society where some commentators associate being controversial with being wrong.

Despite the fact that life itself is a risk, and indeed the Scriptures tell us that "whosoever would seek to save his life will surely lose it," the media has used the word "risk" as a pejorative, which can only carry a positive connotation when used to describe state-run lotteries. Almost daily, we read solemn words about a "risky" foreign policy move by the President, or "risky" investments or "risky" loans, just as if these phrases were not as redundant as talk in about one- story bungalows. The plain fact is that all policies, all loans and all investments are risky, because they are all based on a faith in the unknown future. This is as it should be. The men and women who founded our country were at once adventurers who took personal risks of the most extreme kind and pragmatists who wrote a Constitution based on the tested theory that men were not gods.

No assumptions were made that elected leaders or business or labor leaders would all be selfless persons devoted to the public interest. Instead the rock upon which our structure rests is the diffusion of power and the implicit belief that the freedom of an individual to pursue one's own interest, is the surest way to advance our mutual fortunes. They had a well-founded faith that political, intellectual and business competition would in fact produce the greatest good for the greatest number. They understood with great clarity that this was a dangerous and revolutionary concept, and you will look in vain in the Federalist papers for promises of a safe, easy, risk-free life. Democracy itself is the ultimate risk because its survival rests on the courage and the imagination of the individual, of free men and women who are willing to innovate, to stand up and be counted, to take a chance and to live with the results of their own efforts. This courage to be ourselves, to develop our skills, to take a position is the essence of what education is all about.

It is the mainspring not only of our business system but our political stability. As long as we can foster the willingness to take a risk, our country will grow and prosper. If we as a nation ever opt for a safe, stagnant tomorrow, our economy will sink to the sluggish levels of the planned societies which are even now dragging down the general level of world prosperity. If we are to restore our leadership in productivity, in innovation, in international affairs, it must be done by individuals. Institutions have no morals, no leadership qualifications, no risk-taking abilities--only the individual has these qualities, and thus the individual is the key and the only hope in moving mankind forward. Perhaps Jacob Bronowski summed it up best when he wrote: "The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the ascent of man." This is the spirit nurtured by the Wharton School and because of it, I take particular pride in accepting on behalf of the men and women of Citibank and as their proxy this award this evening.

 
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  • The document was created from the speech, "Wriston--Wharton," written by Walter B. Wriston for the Wharton School Club on 20 March 1979. The original speech is located in MS134.001.003.00031.
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