How to Get Free Pens from Harvard Business School: A Lesson in Humility

Getting free branded pens from Harvard Business School is fairly easy and straightforward. Follow these easy steps:

1.     Commandeer corporate aircraft

2.     Escort esteemed professors to manufacturing facility in Phillips, Wisconsin

3.     Facilitate intro activity: “if this person were an elective at Harvard they would be…and why”

4.     Have discussion about the power of business as a force for good in our societies

5.     Return professors home safely on still-in-custody corporate jet

6.     Send follow-up email complaining about lack of branded writing utensils

7.     Receive package containing pens in mail. Open with glee. Announce at every occasion that you are signing documents with your “HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PEN.”

From a cost-benefit analysis, there are easier ways to acquire these pens. In fact, eBay has a four pack of these puppies on sale for $9.99! We burned through that amount of money in jet fuel just starting up the engines. But a purchasing them would lack the story. And within the story is the true value.

Harvard holds a certain cache to a lot of people. I’m no exception. It remains an elusive and mystical place where Superman learned architecture to construct the Fortress of Solitude. Conversely, I once injured myself attaching a garden hose to my home. I figure that’s disqualification right there even before taking the GMAT. Were I a graduate of Harvard, I would wear the sweatshirt. Everywhere. To work. To business casual events. To formal affairs. While working out. To my daughter’s upcoming wedding. In the shower. You get the idea. I would be proud. Perhaps arrogant. No, not perhaps. I would be. Have I mentioned that I’m writing the first draft of this post with my HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PEN? My conclusion: Harvard is full of super smart people who know a lot about the world.

While that is true, at least in my book, how these seven professors showed up during the tour of BW Papersystems in Phillips, WI, was how I hope all leaders and educators show up (even if they’re from an institution whose name often precedes them)—with humility. While the word has an official definition, I have seen this quality brought to life in the mindset and resulting behavior of: “willing and eager to learn something from anyone in any situation.” At the BW Leadership Institute, we get the chance to host a variety of prestigious groups from all over the world and I’d venture to say that few have shown up as eager and willing to learn as this group. These professors asked open-ended questions and showed up with genuine inquisitiveness about each person, their role, and the organization from the pilots to the machinists, the HR department to the hospitality team. To see the reaction of our team members to this quality of behavior was inspirational. As we walked through the facility I looked back and saw a wake of smiles and appreciation from our team, the professors having shown a genuine interest in them. Regardless of the knowledge transfer and what might come from this visit, right there is when I knew it was worth it all.

I thought Harvard couldn’t be more impressive. I was wrong. These seven intellectual heavyweights (Jan Rivkin, Derek Van Bever, Monique Burns Thompson, Nien-he Hsieh, Raffaella Sadun, Rebecca Henderson, and Sandra Sucher) showed up to learn and grow and it reminded me of what humility truly is and why it’s so inspirational. What makes people feel valued is when someone asks their opinion and listens to feedback, not talking at or to them.

Well, that and the gift of pens from a small private school in Boston, MA.


As a co-founding partner of the BW Leadership Institute, Matt Whiat draws on his personal experience as a former US Air Force Officer to help organizations create cultures where people feel valued while they build a thriving business. If you would like to follow-up with Matt, you can email him at or connect with him on LinkedIn.