J.K.Rowling Wows the Muggles at Harvard

Last Updated Jun 9, 2008 7:53 AM EDT

I don't know if Harry Potter would have made a great CEO, but his creator, J.K. Rowling, identifies two traits that young leaders, business or otherwise, can grow by: learning through failure and empathy for the less fortunate.

Delivering a speech last week to alumni (and many children, including my 10-year-old daughter) during Harvard's 2008 graduation ceremonies, Rowling recalled her own poverty in London -- "as poor as one could be without being homeless" -- and her experience in her 20s at Amnesty International helping the politically persecuted.

On the power of failure:

"The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are ever after secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.

"I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.

"And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

On imagination and empathy:
"Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

"Those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters."

In closing, she encouraged her Harvard audience to use their intelligence, power, and influence to raise their voices on behalf of those who have no voice.
"If you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better."
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.