A new philosophy for leadership

Dec 20 2012 by Ken Starkey Print This Article

The current leadership model for business and finance was created at a time when leaders were convinced they knew best, abetted by an elite group of economists who were convinced that they knew the way the world worked - or should work.

However I believe that we need a new approach to leadership in which the starting point is our lack of knowledge - a frank admission that we do not really 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 towards psychology, philosophy, law, history, political science, even the arts and humanities to present their students with a different vision of being human.

A key first step is to encourage reflexivity in our leaders and future leaders, a realisation that there are alternatives, that they need to reflect on and critique rather than accept unquestioningly theories which appeal to them because they seem to speak to their self-interest.

Business schools need to challenge their own current orthodoxy, a view of business and society rooted in a crude Darwinian view of the survival of the fittest. They need to engage with perspectives that 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 personal interest, one that will need to appeal to the sense that it is leadership for all not for the few.

Learning how to manage a complex future will require new conversations beyond small top management groups hunkered down to defend themselves. It will require opening up to the discussion of what constitutes leadership to the many if those in leadership positions are to regain the respect and credibility they have lost.

Leaders need to develop new forms of self-leadership, leadership with humility, grounded in what the Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum describes as "cultivating humanity", balancing a concern for self with the concern for others both within and beyond their organizations.

The main challenge for those looking to reform business school teaching in line with the new business context of financial crisis is the issue of the MBA. What are we to do about this management qualification par excellence? Two strategies are possible.

The first is to keep the MBA as the key indicator of an education in management but to revise it more or less radically. Many schools are trying to do this with an explosion of courses in, for example, responsibility, sustainability and social entrepreneurship. Some are trying to be more radical, using philosophy and the arts to critique dominant business mindsets.

However, these changes too often seem to be tinkering at the edges of the curriculum, whilst responsible capitalism burns. The core remains resolutely finance and supposedly rational analysis. MBAs still market themselves on rankings in which individual salary is the main metric. Business schools will need to meet the challenge to refine and reposition the MBA as an education fit for the purpose of creating a business system, in particular a financial system responsive to the greater rather than the minority good.

The second strategy could be to create a new kind of Masters education, one that would meld an understanding of business and its potential with a broader concept of education.

Perhaps the lesson for business schools is that they should be recruiting graduates from other disciplines, the arts and humanities and the sciences, for innovative new courses that will help future leaders to imagine the products and services we so desperately need.

In the process business schools would need to become more like the agora of ancient Athens, a place where commerce had its place but it was 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 what they knew and did not know in order to transcend those limits.

At Nottingham University Business School we see leadership as an art informed by science and as a communal rather than an individual act. It is a moral, ethical activity, best framed in terms of psychological and organizational integrity. This is also challenging as it requires such a difficult balancing act between the intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

We aim to create a learning environment in which students can explore how to balance economic necessity with the challenge of developing more humane and sustainable organizations. Our teaching draws on best practice in management and education, eastern and western philosophy, psychology, the arts and humanities, systems thinking, action and narrative inquiry, story-telling, life histories, scenario planning, management learning and personal development.

In conclusion, the main challenge for business schools is how to create a new business model out of the chaos of a crisis to which they have to acknowledge their contribution. This will require a long hard look at how leadership is taught in our Schools. Business as usual is no longer an option.

An expanded version of this article first appeared on www.economist.com


About The Author

Ken Starkey
Ken Starkey

Ken Starkey is Professor of Management and Organisational Learning at Nottingham University Business School He is also a Fellow of the Sunningdale Institute of the National School of Government and a Fellow of the British Academy of Management.

Older Comments

Excellent piece that suggests dealing with the 'root causes' underlying the dysfunction, (self) deceit and egoism that characterizes much of the business (leadership) community.

'It is a moral, ethical activity, best framed in terms of psychological and organizational integrity. This is also challenging as it requires such a difficult balancing act between the intellectual, emotional and spiritual.'

Until and unless 'leaders' really, really 'know thyself' in a conscious way, i.e., over and above the intellectual, over and above traditional self-serving ways of doing business and get to 'heart and soul' of doing business, leading (and managing), 'busines as usual' will be a hard nut to crack. Simple, but not easy.

of disfruntion and self-deeit hat runs so may

peter vajda Atlanta, GA

A good piece that I am going to mention on a post to educators. Your view of humility in the face of a future unknown is a different model for educational leaders but right on target as face a future that we cannot predict.

Grant Lichtman

Great post you may find this of interest. 50 20 is a collaborative initiative consisting of sustainability scholars, business school deans and thought leaders. Our vision is to educate and develop globally responsible leaders; enable business organizations to serve the common good; and to engage in the transformation of business and the economy. The fourth and unifying aspect of the vision is the collaboratory: a circular space that enables participants to jointly develop viable solutions to current global challenges. We believe the current environmental, social and economic crises we face can ' and must ' be resolved by changing our mindsets, thinking long term ' and acting cooperatively.

john north

An excellent piece. Pleased to note the opinions and dialogue surfacing in pursuance of breaking the glass ceiling of the MBA. Very similar to our own deliberations currently underpinning our MBA review process.

Cobus Oosthuizen, PhD Johannesburg, South Africa

A very interesting article and provides a new direction to the education system.