The Art of the MBA

The Art of the MBA

Over the past decade or so it’s become accepted in the business education world that some of the best value that MBA students get from a year or two in the classroom comes not from their chosen school’s academics but from their peers. This is why all of the leading international schools have worked hard to build classes that often look like mini-United Nations, embracing representatives from almost every nationality and ethnicity under the sun. What better way to learn how to do business in China or Brazil, the argument goes, than from a fellow student who was born, raised, and employed in that country?

But while the average MBA classroom may consequently look like the very model of modern diversity, how diverse are they in reality? Deep down aren’t the great majority of students at major business schools actually the same when it comes to attitudes, values, and aspirations? And if that is the case, don’t we risk creating another generation of business leaders prone to what professor Pierre Dussauge of HEC Paris describes as “herd mentality,” the blind acceptance of the sort of behaviors that led to the global fiscal crisis?

Desiree Van Gorp, MBA program director at Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands, has stuck her head above the virtual parapet and suggested that true diversity can only come by developing what she calls a “renaissance MBA.” Harking back to a time when leaders got kudos for knowing something about everything rather than a lot about a little, she would like to see programs that go well beyond the “usual suspects” when recruiting students and bring in more individuals from areas such as politics, academia, and even the arts to add spice to the mix and create a more rounded learning experience.

Of course, while specialists from these areas are still thin on the ground at top B-school campuses, teaching methods that draw upon them are becoming increasingly common. For example, learning how to lead like a Shakespearean character (hopefully without the blood and gore associated with so many of them) has become a feature of options at schools as widely spread as MIT’s Sloan School of Management, New York University’s Stern School of Business, and the U.K.’s Warwick Business School, which runs a joint venture with the nearby Royal Shakespeare Company. ESMT in Germany uses the conductor Daniel Barenboim as a case study of how to get the best out of creative teams, while the IEDC Bled School of Management in Slovenia, reckoned by the late Peter Drucker to be the best management school in the world, includes a week of arts-based leadership education in its executive MBA.

And at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Canada, Nancy Adler, a professional water-color painter, is a well-established member of the academic lineup. Of course, it likely helps that Adler is also a highly experienced adviser to multinationals on cross-cultural management issues at McGill. As she puts it, “For quite a while I didn’t flag up my second career to students because of the long-standing antipathy between art and commerce.” Now, however, she is well and truly out of the academic closet and uses her artistic experience to help aspiring business leaders tackle problems in a different, but decidedly hard-headed, way. “Painters always have desire to produce something of high quality, but all too often in commerce people settle for just good enough,” she says. “I don’t see why the artist’s focus on achieving the very best can’t be replicated in business.”

Adler believes that 21st century leadership should move beyond the replication of historical patterns and introduce thinking based on hope, innovation, and beauty. “Leaders can work backward from their aspirations and imagination,” she contends, “rather than forward from the past.”

Perhaps the next generation of MBAs might end up learning just as much from a Pollock or a Picasso as they do from a Porter or a Peters.

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