It’s not surprising that a number of scholars and businesspeople have begun to question the direction of business education.
It used to be that MBA students went to business school to learn about the practice of management. Most had undergraduate degrees in the arts and sciences. But that’s no longer the case. A growing proportion of students attending business schools today majored in business as undergraduates—or they came to business school with five or six years of experience in investment banking or management consulting. Business students nowadays are not, for the most part, poets. They are people very familiar with business.
Of course, in many ways this experience gives students a head start in their MBA course work. They come in knowing basic accounting; they understand discounted cash flow and regression analysis. But, if you think about it, the very fact that they already are so familiar with the content of the traditional MBA program suggests that MBA students perhaps need a little less in the way of quantitative tools and a little more in the way of good judgment and self-knowledge, as well as a deeper understanding of human nature.
Business academics are promoted based on the mathematical rigor of their research rather than on the relevance of it. What students get in class, therefore, are highly trained academics steeped in mathematics who are teaching formalized management tools. These tools work well enough if you’re studying techniques for financial valuation, but they are less useful when you’re studying leadership and organizational behavior.
Students could learn a lot more about these subjects, Bennis and O’Toole argued, if they took a course in literature. Fiction can be as instructive about leadership and organizational behavior as any business textbook.
Badaracco uses literature to provide his students with well-rounded, complex pictures of leaders in all walks of life—leaders whose challenges, particularly psychological and emotional ones, parallel those of senior executives. In his classes, Badaracco uses texts such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Sophocles’s Antigone, and Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” to help students understand questions of leadership, decision making, and moral judgment.