The Responsibility of Management Schools to Develop Responsible Leaders

This weekend, while attending the Three on The Bund Sustainable Business and Society Event, I knew that it would be one that I would be interested in, as at the top of the ticket you had thee leaders of business management schools talking about sustainability.

Moderated by PhD Lu Xiongwen ,Dean of Fudan University’s Business School, the main event was really when Prof. Richard Locke got up to speak. Proceeded by his Dean, Prof Locke’s speech was basically broken out into a few major areas: How Sloan defined sustainability,where “sustainability” is going , and what Sloan was doing to educated its students.

Much like some of my own posts, Locke immediately took issue with the focus on carbon and framing the issues we face as being systems that emit carbon, and he was very upbeat about the prospects about “sustainability” because, as he saw it, there were three things pushing sustainability forward (1) Economics and the fact that recessions are a great time to remove inefficiencies (2) Concern for climate in the market (3) Increase transparency and active citizenry. (Note: I would have added government regulations and incentives in there as well)

.. and then wrapped up by discussing some of the programs that MIT offered its students (including Slab)

It was a very interesting speech delivered by someone who had a long history in the area of sustainability, and almost immediately following that, the topic of should management schools be a place for teaching sustainability came up.

.. a dialogue that sadly did not provide a clear yes or no, and it is a topic that I will hope to address below.

Going back 9 months ago when I was first beginning my conversations with CEIBS, I must admit that I was fortunate to be speaking with people who had a strong vision and understanding that their school had the opportunity to take a big step. It was a step that took years to prepare, but when all was said and done, all of the 193 MBA 2009 – 2010 students were going to be required to take a course on sustainability.

An action that I would learn through my trip to Copenhagen was in many ways ground breaking (i.e. this is still the only MBA program we have found to date that REQUIRES all students to take a course on sustainability), but that we were soon going to be met by a number of others who had long histories of offering mixed degrees and lots of electives in the area of environment and sustainability.

But, for the most part, the schools we met were not “ranked” in the top tier.. and it was at about that time that I started to begin wondering why that was? Why was it that business schools, as incubators for future business leaders, were not moving their programs from their current position to one that balanced sustainability.

In answering this big question, I began to break it down into smaller questions:
1) What is the goal of a business management school?
2) Are the current issues we face the result of man, but more specifically of how we make management decisions
3) Will we need to, on a large level, begin to make changes that will reverse, mitigate, or adapt to X?
4) Do Management schools have a responsibility to the wider market and begin training more “sustainable” leaders?

Questions I thought that needed to be answered first, or at least tested, prior to understanding why it was that no one was putting “sustainability” next to finance, accounting, and marketing… and here is what I came up with.

1) The goal of a business management school is to incubate future leaders, who are hoped to go onto careers the will create economic growth. Economic growth is the primary model that is taught, and throughout the majority of classes and projects that are offered as part of the core curriculum, economic growth at the country, city, market, and corporate levels is te goal, and that there is no good alternative to positive growth.

A recession (negative growth) is always evil and a depression is always destructive, regardless of what the external costs of economic growth may be. Or what the positive externalities of a recession may be (i.e. improved efficiencies and reduction of resource consumption).

2) Answering this question gets a bit tricky as for it to be true, we must accept that man is the primary catalyst of climate change, and for the purposes of this post I will do just that by simply stating that it is managers who are deciding on where to extract materials, install coal fire plants, and how to design cars. Decisions that can exacerbate what some feel is an issue that we are not responsible for in its entirety, but none the less, decisions that ARE made by man that ARE having an impact on the physical environment.

3) Regardless of whether or not the Maldives and/ or Shanghai ultimately sink as sea levels rise, the fact is that we are already seeing large scale climate change and environmental failures occur. Algae outbreaks, melting ice caps, acid rain that destroys farm yields, water that is unusable (even in an industrial setting), falling fish stocks, and do on these failures are affecting the air, food, and water that we as humans need to survive. Failures that are getting bigger, more frequent, and can longer be dilluted.

Failure that will require us to make some changes. Changed in policy. Changes in systems. Changed in cities. Changes in lifestyle.

Changes that will require business leaders to make different decisions…. which leads to whether or not management schools have a responsibility to begin addressing a wider responsibility (perhaps a responsibility that is wider than they originally planned for) and begin putting forward curriculum and structures that train their students to act with the concepts of sustainability in mind

4) In answering this question, I think I need to start by returning to the first point. That business management schools have historically been places where future leaders could be incubated and trained to be successful in the market. A market that historically did not consider the environment as a priority, and did not view the issues of sustainability (economic, environmental, or societal) as issues that were ultimately their responsible for.

They were responsible for sustaining growth trajectories, and making decisions that put their organizations on that path.

But times are changing. Consumers, investors, and governments are beginning to change the way they view things, and what may have been a problem once overlooked is no longer. Which ultimately leads back to firms, and the leaders of those firms.

Which leads me to the following conclusion.

without a doubt, for us to move forward on the issues we face, we need to see a change within our academic institutions, and while there are clearly a number of institutions who have brought together some fine elective courses, there needs to be a core curriculum change. A change that requires all business management classes to begin incorporating the issues of sustainability into their class work, and in a way that engages the students in such a manner that students understand that they will face options of green and brown, but unlike before, they will be judged with a new lens, held to a new standard, and relied upon to clean up economies and systems that are inefficient, emit pollutants, and are otherwise out of balance with the wider economy, environment, and community.

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