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John Harvard's Journal

Rebecca Henderson

November-December 2011

Rebecca Henderson

Rebecca Henderson

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Rebecca Henderson began her career studying why large companies find it difficult to change. One part of the answer is the phenomenon of “overload”—essentially, the failure to spend time planning for the future because one is so focused on urgent needs of the present. This phenomenon, the subject of research by the newly minted John and Natty McArthur University Professor, applies to individuals as well as companies. For example, even though we know that skimping on sleep and exercise can harm us, “we jeopardize long-term health for short-term results.” (Henderson herself recharges by kayaking and hiking with her 15-year-old son, Harry. Her late husband, John Huchra, was Doyle professor of cosmology in the astronomy department.) The dangers of such short-term thinking are also a theme of her current work as co-director of the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard Business School. Predictions of the likely fallout from climate change are dire—erratic rainfall and drastically diminished crop yields, followed by famine and political unrest—yet environmental legislation failed in Washington again last year. “Are we really going to wait until these things are upon us to take action?” she asks. Yet she remains an optimist: even with government gridlock, she has faith in the power of the private sector. Saving the environment will be the next big wave in innovation and job creation, she believes, as steel, railways, plastics, and information technology were for previous generations. “We need clean energy.  We need abundant clean water.  We need safe and effective waste disposal,” she says. “Business can do that.  That’s what business does.”