For the last 30+ years, Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld has required his MBA students to watch Harry & Tonto, a 1974 film directed by Paul Mazursky. Why have aspiring leaders watch a fictional story about the challenges of aging in 20th-century America? According to Sonnenfeld, the senior associate dean for executive programs and Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at Yale SOM, the movie can teach them “to see the world through the eyes of someone decades older.”
Writing last week in the Huffington Post, Sonnenfeld reflected on the death of Mazursky, who remained active and productive until the end of his long life. Sonnenfeld described what he had gained by watching Harry & Tonto, and argued for the important role that older workers can play in the economy.
As a 20-year-old watching this film with my parents at a suburban Philadelphia theater, I came to further appreciate the later-life needs of seniors, including my parents—my parents as they resisted hasty late-life agendas scripted for them by callous healthcare providers and other impatient institutions. As a management scholar, I presented research that showed that workers in late life—including even CEOs—have much to offer through their elevated work ethic, accumulated life wisdom, insightful judgment, and mentoring spirit. Truly one of my "oldest" friends, financier Albert H. Gordon continued active through his final days at age 107, with his portfolio up 15% in his final year of life, 2009, with the markets in turmoil...as well as he had done in 1929. His friend, former Goldman CEO John Whitehead, at 92 continues active, as well as his fellow financier and fellow hero in World War II from Normandy Beach, Maurice (Hank) Greenberg, who heads the vibrant CV Starr at age 89. We could add to that the still very active and wise Jack Bogle (85), founder of Vanguard, or the active William Donaldson (83), our 27th chairman of the SEC. Surely we have seen in the arts and in politics such parallel priceless septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians as choreographer Martha Graham (97); President Ronald Reagan (in office at age 78); Frank Lautenberg as senator until he was 89; and revered diplomat Averill Harriman (94).