Zen and the Art of Ethics

New B-school workshops rely on poetry and comedy to teach self-awareness, and are preparing MBAs to be more responsible leaders

By Francesca Di Meglio

By now, everyone involved in management education knows that a series of scandals -- from Enron to Parmalat -- has shaken Corporate America to its core. Some say the responsibility to right these wrongs rests with educators at top B-schools. In an effort to avoid future fallouts, recruiters have told B-school administrators they want to hire MBAs who are leaders, not just managers, and say true leaders must be more than just well-groomed quant jocks. "People are more than a set of professional skills," says Nancy J. Adler, professor of Management at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Now that the dust has settled on most of these scandals and the economy is once again showing signs of life, educators are finding new solutions to the same old problem: How do you teach someone to be a charismatic, inspiring risk-taker with a sense of morality? Adler and her counterparts around the globe have come up with some unique courses designed to fulfill this tall order. Here are some innovative examples:

Artistic approaches. A desire to tap into the human side of MBAs and rediscover businesses' role in improving society motivated Adler to create the McGill course, "The Art of Leadership" in the fall of 2002. The full-credit seminar runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday for three consecutive weeks. In it, Adler uses poetry as a gateway to discussions about life's dilemmas. She then uses art -- from narrative writing to sculpture -- to bring out qualities like courage, empathy, and humility in her students. For example, participants are asked to write their autobiographies as if they're at the end of their life, and then share it with the class. She also requires her students to perform Tai Chi exercises before each session.

Exercises that revolve around artistic expression take MBAs to a deeper place than case studies, says Adler, who's also a painter. She says artists move people, force them to see the world in new ways, and motivate them to make change. Her goal is to train MBAs to do the same. "Business must shape a positive society, or there will be no room to succeed," she says.

Students say Adler challenges them to be creative and ask tough questions of themselves. "It's not a fluffy class in painting," says Alexandra Schwartz, a 2004 McGill graduate. "The homework required a tremendous amount of introspective thinking, a difficult task for MBA students who are juggling other more theoretical and quantitative courses."

Comic relief. B-schools are offering MBAs more arts electives that are designed specifically for business types. Mission Improvable, an improvisational acting troupe that offers workshops around the U.S., uses performance techniques to teach executives how to think outside of the box, or how to get along with others in a group. "Improv classes provide a safe and encouraging environment for students to come out of their shells and learn who they are," say Mission Improvable co-CEOs Lloyd Ahlquist and Jason Shomer. "These types of skills are often left out of the typical business classroom."

For the first time this fall, New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management are bringing these methods to campus. The Stern elective, "The Performance Manager," focuses on using theater to improve communication skills. "The beauty of live performance is the electricity that happens in a room when people are really being authentic with each other," says Patricia Bower Cooley, a clinical associate professor of management communication at Stern who started her career as an actress. Activities on miming, and a day spent with a stand-up comic are highlights of her course. These lessons improve students' ability to speak publicly and network. "This course helps people to inspire others," says second-year Stern student Hal Cashman.

Lakshmi Balachandra, a 2004 Sloan graduate who once performed as a stand-up and improvisational comic, teaches "Dynamic Leadership: Using Improvisation in Business" at her alma mater. "Improvisational acting teaches you how to react to the unexpected and allows you to gain confidence," Balachandra says. The course, which evolved from a one-day workshop to a half-semester elective, features impromptu student speeches and free-word association. Balachandra says students become more sensitive to one another because they have to actively listen and anticipate each other's responses in classroom exercises.

Business students are also hungry for lessons in developing meaningful relationships. Second-year Sloan student Kirk McKeown, who was an English major as an undergraduate, has taken every opportunity to further develop his ethical standards and think beyond the numerical data. "The softer skills are what define you more than any quantitative skills you have," says McKeown, who is enrolled in Balachandra's course.

Psychoanalyze This. European B-schools may be a step ahead of U.S. counterparts when it comes to nurturing the gentler side of MBAs. Since 1999, as part of its leadership electives, the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland has offered students and their partners an opportunity to separately partake in 20 one-on-one sessions with a Jungian-trained psychoanalyst, who students choose from an approved list.

The psychoanalyst helps students work out issues, analyze dreams, or contemplate the future. Students get credit for the elective as long as they attend their scheduled appointments. But their conversations with analysts are strictly confidential.

Jack Denfeld Wood, IMD professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior and a Jungian-trained analyst who was the driving force behind the elective, says he doesn't even know which analysts his students are seeing. Wood created the course because MBAs in the accelerated one-year program at IMD were facing many pressures, and needed an outlet for self-reflection. He decided to expand the program to students' partners because families were also under lots of stress. "Being more self-aware helps people lead more responsibly," Wood says. "When we don't know ourselves, the bad stuff we don't like gets projected elsewhere, and we end up putting blame on others."

Grainne Moss, a 2003 IMD graduate, says she took the course because she believes the way people behave in their career is a direct result of personality. She wanted to investigate her deeper self. "If you want MBAs to run $500 billion companies, then they need to know what peeves them in the morning," Moss says. "Something that peeves them could lead to making a bad decision." That's exactly what educators in the post-scandal era are trying to avoid.

Edited by Thane Peterson

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