For over 30 years I worked as a business school professor educating thousands of MBAs and executives. Even though I’m now retired from the faculty of Harvard Business School, I still have the opportunity as a consultant to learn from the CEOs I work with — especially those who believe a company should create both economic and social value, a dual-purpose that benefits not only investors but also employees, customers, suppliers, and society at large. Recently, my colleagues and I interviewed dozens of these higher-ambition CEOs, all of whom taught us a valuable lesson: integrity is at the heart of great leadership. (For more see Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value).
Though I’m no longer heading back into the classroom, I’ve been reflecting on how that lesson relates to the business school curriculum. Particularly, I wonder to what extent business schools foster the integral skills these higher-ambition leaders use as a foundation for their success:
Business Integration. Higher-ambition leaders are able to integrate multiple business disciplines (strategy, ethics, marketing, finance and so on) into a coherent, systemic approach for building a great company. They start with the development of the company’s purpose and strategy, and then proceed to design performance management, business and human resource policies, and leadership development practices that are tied to essential human values that then comprise an integrated whole.
Additionally, higher-ambition leaders capture the hearts and minds of their people, and they lead and execute in a way that creates both economic and social value. Southwest Airlines, for example, does not lay off employees during difficult economic times because its purpose is to care for employees just as much as it cares for customers. Southwest’s business policies — little or no long-term debt and growth limited to two cities a year, despite opportunities to expand much faster — allow it to minimize the financial and cultural risk that comes with debt and rapid growth.
Personal Integration. Higher-ambition CEOs know who they are, and how they lead and run their companies reflects their personal values and principles. Therefore, corporate strategy is not developed in isolation from those values, and policies and practices are not just lofty-sounding statements issued by human resource departments.
Moreover, these leaders remain open to learning through feedback and reflection. Consider Ed Ludwig, CEO of Becton Dickenson, who has made it a practice to foster honest conversations about gaps between his leadership team’s desired direction and the organizational reality by empowering a task force of his best people to “speak truth to power.” Or Val Gooding, former CEO of BUPA UK, who shared her 360-degree feedback with managers across the business, role-modeling the kind of behavior she wanted them to emulate.
With all too few exceptions, this is not what is taught at business schools. Most business schools do not teach students how to design strategies or policies that are grounded in their personal values or how to test solutions against those beliefs.
For example, in finance courses students learn that profitability and return on assets is the measure of business success. And in organizational behavior courses, students learn that motivating employees and developing teamwork is the measure of successful leadership. But students are never asked to examine these tensions and merge them into a coherent leadership approach that is consistent with their ethics and values.
Even when schools attempt to integrate subjects, as several have done, that integration remains devoid of a definition of corporate purpose and values. That is because getting faculty from different areas to agree on such a definition — let alone to integrate diverse perspectives — is difficult in an academic world where advancement is based on peer review and recognition in a single discipline.
Given this challenge, what can business schools do?
What’s needed is a coherent, integrated approach for developing future leaders. If we continue to teach and study in silos, with ethics over here and finance over there, then our students and alumni — understandably — will perpetuate this siloed view of the world within the companies they go on to lead. Some schools, including Harvard Business School, are requiring more courses in ethics, teamwork, and leadership values, but that’s not enough. We need to connect leadership to personal integrity and to everything else that we teach.
We need to encourage higher-ambition leaders to help reshape business education. A great example is Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic, who has refocused leadership development at HBS on student self-reflection and clarification of personal values. His groundbreaking course encourages students to examine the crucible moments in their lives and then explore the implications of the problems they will face. If schools encouraged this type of reflection along with ideas about how to build higher-ambition institutions, they would help students integrate their personal values with policies and practices that will govern the enterprises they will someday lead.
I would love to hear whether my observations hit the mark, from my faculty colleagues and from students and managers who are the current and past “customers” of these programs. Does business education integrate across disciplines through the prism of core values and purpose? Does business education facilitate integration of personal values with management practice?
This piece also appears on the HBR.org blog