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.
This is where we now stand. A model has evolved whereby the leaders of business and finance, abetted by an elite group of economists, have convinced themselves that only they know the way the world should work.
However, we are at a tipping point. Nitin Nohria, the new dean of Harvard Business School, argues that we need leaders who demonstrate moral humility. I believe that we need an approach to leadership in which the starting point is our lack of knowledge, a frank admission that we do not know very much about how to build a sustainable system for business and society.
In this humility-driven vision of leadership, business schools need to shift their centre of gravity away from economics, finance and dreams of individual fortune. We need to teach future leaders to reflect and critique—that there are alternatives to theories that they accept, without question, because they speak to their self-interest.
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.
The main challenge is how to reflect this in the MBA. Two strategies are possible. The first is to keep the MBA the foremost qualification in management, but to revise it. Many schools are trying to do this with an explosion of courses in, for example, responsibility, sustainability and social entrepreneurship. The more inventive are using philosophy and the arts to critique dominant business mindsets. Jim March’s pioneering use of literature to teach leadership at Stanford is an example of this. The increasing interest in the psychology of personal development is another.
However, these changes are just tinkering at the edges of the curriculum. Meanwhile responsible capitalism burns. The core of an MBA programme is still resolutely grounded in finance and supposedly rational analysis. Business schools still market themselves based upon media rankings, including The Economist’s, in which individual salary is the main metric. Their challenge should be to create a business system—in particular a financial system—responsive to the greater, rather than the minority, good.
Studying the classics
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.
Ken Starkey: Professor of management and organisational learning at Nottingham University Business School