Winning the war within: Radically reimagining management education’s relationship to the world

by Lars Moratis and Frans Melissen /

In an op-ed earlier this year, Financial Times editor Andrew Hill put forward the question whether the pandemic could turn out to be an impetus to rethink business schools and management education. In a context of a perfect storm of systemic crises, including climate change and racial injustice, every organization is challenged to change.

Hill builds on lessons that can be drawn from the article ‘Training Leaders to Win Wars and Forge Peace’ by Peter Tufano, outgoing dean of the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, in Business History Review. In his article, Tufano provides an insightful historical account of how five elite US business schools have responded to the challenges of the conflagration brought upon them by World War II.

Their responses varied from adaption to transformation, including developing a business school from a college of commerce, introducing new management programs, seeking collaborations, slashing internal departmental barriers, and even shutting down the entire MBA program in order to focus on delivering courses for military leaders.

Instead of using war as a metaphor to describe the competitive playing field, strategic positions, and attitudes, Tufano, refreshingly, draws well-informed parallels between the challenges posed to business schools by the societal upheaval that arose from World War II and those posed by the current perfect storm of the interlocked systemic ecological, social, and health crises.

In a 2020 article for BizEd, a journal of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, we already echoed Tufano’s conclusions that “most business schools are adapting, as opposed to using this as a moment of transformation”, that the toughest choices for business schools will be of a more existential nature, and that business schools should respond in a ‘whatever it takes’ manner that is “a license to experiment, to break rules, to innovate, to fail, to violate norms.”

At the same time, we think that Tufano misses the mark on two important points – points that are related to the essence of his argument and his interpretation of winning wars and forging peace.

Our first concern is related to his question “When is a war our war?” Tufano posits that the systemic crises are faraway wars that are not yet ‘ours’ – and that “[w]e are not the first in history to try to protect and distance our organizations from external crises.” Of course, business schools are no stranger to protecting their financial interests, nor should we deny that a neoliberal, business-centric worldview has become part and parcel of the identity of many business schools. Also, serving customers in the short-term and a longing for status through rankings schemes requires distancing ourselves from these crises to a certain extent.

However, the real point – and highly uncomfortable truth – here is that we should acknowledge that business schools have been instrumental in the war that business and modern culture has waged on the planet and its inhabitants and, as such, they are in fact among the main culprits of the perfect storm of systemic crises the world is witnessing. Through their teaching and research they have been enablers of business practices that run counter to the wellbeing of humans and nature, have reproduced values underlying extractivism and financialized capitalism, and, in their efforts to advocate ecological quality and social justice, have reduced sustainability to a means towards business economic ends rather than the other way around. By focusing on the business case of sustainability business schools have legitimized incremental action and have left the role of business in power relations largely intact, supported by seductive guises of ‘doing well by doing good’, green growth, and, more recently, deceptive labels such as net zero emissions and nature-positive business.

In other words, the systemic crises that Tufano calls ‘external’ are mirrors of what is primarily an internal value crisis. What we should recognize, therefore, is that we cannot respond to the global conflagrations of our time without profound introspection. The war that is to be fought lies within. And that – not just the disruptive consequences of the pandemic, climate change, and racial injustice – is what makes it truly existential. It could not be more ‘ours’.

Second, we think that Tufano’s call upon business schools in the end lacks ambition. Surely, we would not pit against training business leaders with “greater emphasis on training them to appreciate the complex systems that drive pandemics, racial divides, and climate tipping points”, to make them “sensitive to the consequences of their decisions, which will affect far more than stock market returns”, and develop “steady moral compasses that will permit them to make difficult trade-offs”. Alike Tufano, we think that management students, on every level, “need to be system leaders if they are to be wartime generals and then peacetime leaders.”

However, there is a clear need for more urgency and ambition when it comes to change. To say that the task business schools are up to is “to produce useful and timely research that can also serve society”, as Tufano writes, does not do justice to the challenges that lie ahead. We should reimagine our business schools against the deep concerns about raging patterns of ecological destruction, human exploitation, and possibly already irreversable climate tipping points that are destabilizing societies worldwide. This means that business schools should go well beyond teaching (future) business leaders to appreciate complex systems, sensitizing them to the consequences of their (in)actions, and familiarizing them with making trade-offs. Embracing systemic crises implies embracing a more radical political agenda that is underpinned by Earth System Science, not the business perspective on sustainability.

If there is one thing that business schools should do, it is to radically reimagine their relationship to the world. Several crises in the past decades, notably the prominent fraud scandals at the turn of the century and the financial meltdown and ensuing Great Recession, have urged business schools to start soul searching, reflecting on their roles in society and the value systems that guide them. While one would be hard-pressed to deny that considerable change in the fields of business ethics and sustainable business has happened during that period, we are convinced that a much more profound response will be needed to turn the tides in the context of today’s systemic crises.

In order to, in Tufano’s words, win wars and forge peace, business schools should unequivocally embrace the political agenda of ecological and social sustainability and adopt no less than an activist posture in order to realize it. Making a distinction between advocacy and activism is crucial here: while, popularly speaking, the former focuses on realizing change within the system, the latter revolves around changing the system. For business schools, such an activist posture would entail rentlessly pursuing systemic transition through, for example, making sustainability the north star for all decision-making, using all the roles and functions that business schools have – notably teaching and research – to drive societal change, and acting upon science-based climate targets. And, of course, urging its stakeholders to do the same.               

We think that the business school community should heed Tufano’s historical analysis, the lessons drawn, and the calls for change. As the American poet and Pulitzer prize winner Robert Penn Warren has put it: “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” At the same time, it should be acknowledged that the perfect storm of systemic crises that the world is in the midst of could not only be the mother of reinvention for business schools, it should be of the reinvention of business schools. Business schools need to win the war within, whatever it takes.

Only then can we make peace with the world and ourselves.

Lars Moratis and Frans Melissen are the Chairholders in Management Education for Sustainability, a joint initiative by Antwerp Management School and Breda University of Applied Sciences and the Editors-in-Chief of The PRME Blog.

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