The New MBA?

Bernini

2013 is here and I am not ready for her. 2012 came and went too fast. It was a year for me of finishing and starting things all at the same time. Today about one I finished. I retired myself from my teaching at the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability program with mixed feelings. Programs like this are still extremely rare, but continue to represent the future of business schools truly concerned about sustainability. My own thoughts on this were reflected in a recent article (undated) in The Economist by Ken Starkey of the Nottingham University Business School.

WHAT are the three hardest words for a business leader to speak? Probably “I don’t know”. Business leaders are encouraged to exhibit confidence, competence and omniscience. But this leads to only two possible outcomes. They can fake it: pretend that they are right because they know that the admission of uncertainty and weakness is a career killer. Or they can believe their own hype, convinced that they are right and know better than everybody else.

Starkey’s first response is to revise the way MBA’s are taught, sprinkling in literature and other subjects with a design to build in a more questioning, humble way of leadership. This approach matches my own thoughts on the place of pragmatism in business (and everywhere else.) Pragmatism, in place of the arrogance of our present reductionist way to capture the way the world works, admits always to the contingency of our knowledge and avoids the privilege given to the professionals in our society. The understanding that is critical to effective activities in any collective undertaking comes from careful observation and small-scale experimentation, something the troops can do as well as or better than the generals.

Pragmatic frameworks devalue traditional hierarchical power structures based on specialized knowledge and are, thus, always resisted by those in power. This is true in businesses and in business schools, built on a congeries of separate, distinct disciplines. Pragmatic systems are in play now in businesses, but have yet to be recognized for the universality they embody. The Toyota Production System and the lean manufacturing school it spawned is fundamentally a pragmatic method to arrive at solutions to the inevitable problems that arise in manufacturing. But its principles of democratic inquiry apply to every problematic business (and other) situation. The case method so prevalent in teaching MBSAs involves pragmatism in that the learning comes from “living” the case, but the stress is on the results not the process. The method fails to capture, however, the contingency of any “truth” found by this process. The students leave with a sense that what they have learned is timeless and universal. Context is unimportant to them.

Pragmatism argues just the opposite. Businesses live in a complex world of incessant change and unknowable interrelationships. Innovation is taught as a strategic necessity, but not as an everyday need. It is not the kind of innovation born in laboratories, but the kind coming from the front lines immersed in the world. Enough of my sermonizing. I have become convinced of the power of pragmatism as an explicit methodological and philosophical basis for understanding and working effectively within the world. So you will hear a lot more about this from me this year. Pragmatism lurks in the corners of business schools but has been kept there for fear it would contaminate the clear hegemony of the reductionist, scientific framework on which the disciplinary structure of universities and professionalism in business and elsewhere is based.

Without the benefit of having read my comments on his piece just above, Starkey offers a second more radical strategy for business schools, which I believe merits serious consideration.

So a second, more radical strategy could be to create a new kind of Master’s education that melds an understanding of business with a broader concept of education. Business schools could become more like the agora of ancient Athens, a place where commerce had its place alongside the academy, where philosophers discussed the meaning of the good life and how best to achieve it; a place of dialogue where citizens collectively addressed the limits of their knowledge. For this, business schools might recruit graduates from other disciplines, such the arts, humanities and the sciences, and create innovative courses to help future leaders imagine products and services which fulfil a more social need. 

This will not be easy. It requires a difficult balancing act between the intellectual, emotional and spiritual. But if we are to create a new business model out of the chaos of a crisis to which business schools contributed, we will need to take a long hard look at how leadership is taught in our schools. Business as usual is no longer an option.  

His plan reflects the centrality of business in modern societies. The Greek world was dominated by debate about life. Commerce was well-developed, but nothing like the corporate institutions of today existed. We have advantages and disadvantages compared to the Athenians that make Starkey’s proposal very challenging. We know a lot more about the world than our ancestors did and we have two millennia of experience to examine. That makes it hard to place it in the body of single individuals. Sorting through what we do know is very much more challenging.

For better or worse, the institution of business dominates our societies. We are largely dependent on sources other than our own (or, in ancient times and not so ancient times, slave) labor for the necessities and luxuries of life. I always argue that this dependence on business and the commoditized products it gives us is a serious cause of unsustainability, and needs to change. Even so, business must be a central conversant in the process of change. And for that to be fruitful, business leaders must be able to appreciate points of view expressed in language far from that of their own world. Starkey’s reference to the dialogic framework for learning is critical.

In our new book, Flourishing, coming out in April, Andy Hoffman asked me if I thought that the change we need to escape from our present unsustainable condition is on the same level as the Reformation, Industrial Revolution, Renaissance, or Enlightenment. I believe it is, and we will need Renaissance men and women to provide the new ideas and social systems. As odd as it may sound, business schools may be one of the key places to forge just such people. Starkey points to Nitin Nohria, the new dean of the Harvard Business School, who argues “that we need leaders who demonstrate moral humility”. It’s not just moral humility that matters; it’s also epistemological humility. Our new leaders will need to be humble not only about what is right and wrong, but also about what is true and false. Starkey writes:

To do this, business schools need to challenge their own orthodoxy—a crude Darwinian view of business and society rooted in the survival of the fittest. They need to focus on the social consequences of their actions and accept responsibility for the business excesses of recent years. What is required is a narrative of common interest to combat the mantra of selfishness; one that appeals to the sense that leadership is for all not for the few.

Renaissance leaders came from a foundation where nothing is taken for granted; that there is always more to know and more ways to practice life. Schools are a great places to begin to develop such men and women, but they first must embody the humility that Nohria mentions. Although my own academic career was relatively short, I can attest to the difficulty of doing this within a system where disciplinary knowledge reigns supreme. That’s why the radical programs at Marlboro and Bainbridge island are so very important. Without always being explicit about it, their programs are on the way toward this goal. Nohria and others would do well by stepping out of the historic elitism of their institutions and spend time at these tiny schools.

(Photo is of Gian Lorenzo Bernini)

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