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To Change the World, Let’s Change the Way We See It

“What do the three exhibits in the figure below have in common?” That is one of many interesting questions posed by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, which brought together decades of research by the author, Amos Tversky, and many others. I have been recommending the book to practicing managers since it was published about 10 years ago.

Most people will immediately see that the exhibit on the left contains a sequence of letters (A, B, C) and the one on the right contains a sequence of numbers (12, 13, 14). Fewer people will notice initially that the shapes in the middle in both exhibits are identical. We tend to see that shape as a B when it is among letters and as a 13 when it is among numbers. 

“As for Ann,” Kahneman writes, “you probably imagined a woman with money on her mind, walking toward a building with tellers and secure vaults.” We only need to pause for a moment to imagine another possibility. Although I haven’t done the research, I suspect it might be less likely for business students to see the non-financial alternative.

What we initially see is shaped by the context and our previous experiences. That can be helpful. We need System 1 thinking, as Kahneman calls it, because it is fast and intuitive, and requires less energy. However, at times, and more often than we realize, it is important and useful to kick into System 2 thinking, which is slower and more deliberate, to avoid common errors in judgment or bias.

“Business schools provide a powerful lens through which to view the world. I believe it is one of the main reasons why business school graduates are hired — to generate innovation and growth in markets. It helps scholars to communicate and generate new insights. It supports a global language of commerce.”

But what does it mean when business schools are trying to emphasize ESG and sustainability? I worry that we don’t leave enough room for different ways of viewing the challenges and opportunities facing business and society. It is great to hear about “the business case” for sustainability and the incredible $12 trillion market opportunity provided by the SDGs. Yet, the market lens doesn’t seem nearly enough to generate the progress we need. If we want to change the world, we must begin to look at it differently.

I was reminded about this last week when I visited the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. In conversations about the connection between business and peace, I was quick to assert that private sector job creation is the answer— perhaps even, a panacea for conflict-prone areas. My hosts convinced me, however, that it is much more complex in most situations, and that it is possible for business and job-creation programs to do more harm than good (e.g., by disrupting an already fragile social structure). 

I also gained new insights from how they approach leadership development, learned about critical differences in approaches by peacemakers, humanitarians, and development professionals, and heard from students in the Master of Arts in Social Innovation program. Some said they could not envision developing their ideas and aspirations to make a difference within the business programs they had considered. These were useful insights, and I left San Diego convinced that all of us must work harder to see things differently.

Doing so won’t be easy. Take the typical MBA curriculum, for example. There is little or no room to add new courses, and increasingly learners want programs to be even shorter. Curriculum revision can be a stressful and highly politicized process. But change doesn’t have to require new courses. We can create opportunities for students to see things differently by building more diverse cohorts, using cases studies from different fields (or simply talking about our existing cases differently), and employing simulations and other experiential exercises that call out opportunities to view problems from multiple perspectives.

Sometimes it is just about backing up and taking a bigger, broader view. A long time ago I learned about something called Troxler Fade, which can be demonstrated by staring at a dot in the middle of a circle. If you stare directly at the dot long enough and intently enough, eventually your brain will no longer register the circle. Try it here. Similarly, our narrow focus on organizations and markets can cause us to lose sight of the broader system and miss opportunities for positive change. We want leaders in business (and business schools) who see well beyond their organizations and industries, and address larger systemic issues in ways that strengthen relationships across sectors. As I always say to GBSN member ambassadors, “your job is not just to lead a school, but also to lead an industry.”

At GBSN, our mission, “to improve access to quality, locally relevant management and entrepreneurship education” explicitly recognizes the importance of context and the myriad factors shaping business in any country or region. Our belief is that business education plays an integral role in transforming communities and countries for the common good. To achieve that, we must build programs that enable participants to view business through different lenses and improve the systems in which businesses operate. After all, the form of capitalism is not static. In any country, it is a dynamic ever-changing system. 

To see the world differently, we purposefully build events and programs to bring together participants from across disciplines and sectors, as well as across borders. It is also why GBSN believes network strength comes as much from the diversity of its members, as it does from how many members there are and how connected they are with each other.

So, whether it involves building or transforming business education, if our main objective is to foster inclusive and sustainable development, we must do more to embrace different points of view and schools of thought. The market lens may be enough to produce graduates who go to work in the existing system, but it will not be enough to enable and empower graduates who want to change it.

Dan LeClair, CEO

Dan LeClair was named CEO of the Global Business School Network (GBSN) in February of 2019. Prior to GBSN, Dan was an Executive Vice President at AACSB International, an association and accrediting organization that serves some 1,600 business schools in more than 100 countries. His experience at AACSB includes two and half years as Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, seven years as Chief Operating Officer, and five years as Chief Knowledge Officer. A founding member of the Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) initiative, Dan currently participates on its working board. He also serves in an advisory capacity to several organizations and startups in business and higher education. Before AACSB, Dan was a tenured associate professor and associate dean at The University of Tampa.

Dan played a lead role in creating a think-tank joint venture between the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) and AACSB and has been recognized for pioneering efforts in the formation of the UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), where he served on the Steering Committee for many years. Dan has also participated in industry-level task forces for a wide range of organizations, including the Chartered Association of Business Schools, Graduate Management Admission Council, Executive MBA Council, and Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.

Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries. As a lead spokesperson for reform and innovation in management education, Dan has been frequently cited in a wide range of US and international newspapers, magazines, and professional publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, China Daily, Forbes, Fast Company, and The Economist. Dan earned a PhD from the University of Florida writing on game theory.