Management is what tradition used to call a liberal art: ‘liberal’ because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; ‘art’ because it deals with practice and application. Managers draw upon all of the knowledge and insights of the humanities and social sciences on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on the physical sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.
Tom Peters (who I respect a great deal) and I have been arguing on Twitter about the extent to which what we're doing today at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) lives up to that ideal. Drucker may have had profound doubts about management education--as I've noted before, Peters once read an interview with Drucker in the Australian Institute of Management's journal in which the latter was quoted as saying, "The purpose of professional schools is to educate competent mediocrities." So my purpose here isn't to defend all B-schools against that charge but merely to consider whether the GSB's curriculum rises to Drucker's standard of a "liberal art."
We can debate the relevance of certain components of the GSB's curriculum, but let's stipulate that the school satisfies Drucker's "knowledge" criteria. How are we doing on self-knowledge, leadership and wisdom?
Self-Knowledge: The GSB's most popular elective is our Interpersonal Dynamics course, aka Touchy Feely, which we teach to 360 students every year. (There are fewer than 400 students in each graduating class at the GSB.) I took the course as a student in 1999 and have facilitated groups in the course 10 times since 2007. The course's primary focus is learning how to interact with others more effectively, a process that involves an extensive amount of personal reflection and heightened self-awareness, and there are many other courses at the GSB that push our students to understand themselves better.
Leadership: Every incoming class at the GSB takes our Leadership Labs course in their first academic quarter. I was involved in helping to launch the Labs in 2007 and have been closely involved with their planning and delivery for the past six years. The course involves putting students through a series of small-group exercises in which they share rotating leadership of the group experience, under the guidance of a trained second-year student, one of 66 select Leadership Fellows. There's an extensive list of elective courses in which students can study leadership in greater depth, of course, but right from the start the GSB emphasizes that leadership matters, that leaders are made--not born, and, in the spirit of Bill George, we learn about leadership by learning about ourselves.
Wisdom: So how do we help students transform the building blocks of raw knowledge into meaningful wisdom? Perhaps most effectively by getting out of their way. The GSB gives students a great deal of freedom to experiment and chart their own path. After fulfilling the core curriculum requirements in the first year, students are free to select the courses that matter most to them, and more than half of courses taken by every student are electives. Students at the GSB don't select a major in a specific field of management; once they're finished with the core, they simply pursue their interests. We can debate the merits of having a core curriculum at all, but my sense is that we provide more flexibility than most MBA programs. And as I've written before, B-school will help you get from Point B to Point Z, but finding Point A is up to you.
Is there more the GSB can do in every one of these areas? Yes, of course.
Could the GSB learn from innovative programs like Stanford's own Institute of Design, aka the d.school? Without a doubt.
Do I have serious criticisms of the GSB as an alumnus and as a staff member? No question.
But when Peters says it's "laughable" to call the GSB's approach to management education a liberal art, I take that as a personal challenge. You won't find an executive coach or experiential educator who's more dedicated to Drucker's conception of management or to the value of the liberal arts in general. (Hopefully two years in art school and a history degree from Brown give me some credibility on the subject.) I deeply want the GSB to live up to that standard, I truly believe that it can, and as long as I'm a Leadership Coach there I'll do everything in my ability to support that goal.
Photo courtesy of Alliance Roofing.