Are we educating leaders for a future that will not exist?

Lars Moratis and Frans Melissen / Business schools have derived their legitimacy from their claim to be educating the leaders of the future and helping to build tomorrow’s corporations. While their mission statements are fraught with such assertions, this rhetoric disguises the fact that business schools are experiencing an unprecedented existential crisis – a crisis that goes way beyond the quest for an identity between practical relevance and academic credibility, beyond the role that management education has directly and indirectly played in numerous corporate scandals, and beyond their failure to truly make sustainability a north star guiding their research and educational programmes.

The answer to the question what the extent of this crisis can be found in the Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from August 2021 that explored the physical science basis of the climate crisis. Anyone will acknowledge that the IPCC’s conclusions were outright sobering and, in fact, nothing short of daunting: our civilization is on collision course with planet Earth. Climate change has already led to ecosystems going haywire and will lead to ‘one-in-a-century storms’ happening every couple of years. The most recent IPCC report, which was published a week ago, examines the impacts of the climate catastrophe, adaption measures and the vulnerability of societies worldwide. Its conclusions are nothing short of grim: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

The IPCC’s best estimates tell us that within just a couple of decades, average global temperatures will increase with 3 degrees Celsius, with a minimum of 2 degrees and a maximum of 5 degrees. Leading scientists have said they are unable to really predict what the consequences of these ‘hothouse Earth’ trajectories will entail for human and non-human life. They do expect, however, that exceeding 4 degrees will lead to some form of societal collapse.

Given the role business has in causing and potentially tackling the climate crisis, given the omnipresence of management education, and given business schools’ mission to educate the leaders of the future, a huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of business schools. This seems to be acknowledged by business schools administrators themselves: a recent survey by the Association of MBAs and the Business Graduates Association together with Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics showed that no less than 88 percent of business school deans think they have that responsibility.

It is important to realize though that climate crisis-related responsibilities go well beyond teaching about ‘the business case for climate change’ and ways to avoid loss of profit in a business environment that is becoming increasingly volatile due to changes in natural ecosystems. In fact, these responsibilities have a much more human dimension, too: they are directly related to the health of our students. Recent research by Bath University into the effects of the climate crisis on the mental wellbeing of 16 to 25-year old people in 10 countries showed that a staggering 45 percent of the respondents has feelings of anxiety and fear, while over half of them experiences feelings of sadness, gloom, anger, or helplessness. The troubling conclusion of the researchers is that the absence of policies for effectively combatting the climate catastrophe leads to psychological distress with this generation.

The way most business schools have thus far paid attention to sustainability, which has focused mostly on business case perspectives on sustainability – based on market, innovation, and reputational opportunities – misses the point. It is not only a far cry from what is needed, but also from what may be expected from institutions claiming to educate for the future. A much stronger and more profound response is asked for. Such a response should include an overhaul of the very worldview of business schools, starting with scrutinizing assumptions about the role of business in combatting the climate crisis and the architecture of our socioeconomic system. This, too, is recognized by the IPCC, as it emphasizes that the current capitalist model needs to be abandoned in order to prevent crossing planetary boundaries and entering a future in which ecological and social catastrophe are the rule rather than the exception.

Everyone willing to let this message sink in cannot but arrive at the conclusion that we need to come to a complete reorientation of our relationship to the natural world, to economic value creation, to our obsession with economic growth, and to the roles and responsibilities of business and business schools in society. This reorientation lies at the basis of responding to the existential crisis business schools are in. In this light, business schools need to ask themselves the following tough questions:

  • To what extent does our education help students to survive, personally and professionally, in a hothouse Earth scenario?
  • How should we relate to business in order for it to contribute substantially to preventing such a scenario becoming reality?
  • In the context of climate catastrophe, what role can we play to foster the psychological wellbeing of our students?
  • And is management education, at all, the right place to offer answers to the questions and challenges that the climate crisis poses?

Claiming that we – or anyone else, for that matter – would have the immediate answers to these difficult questions would be nonsensical. However, the following suggestions may help shaping the contours of possible responses:

  • Offering all management students mandatory courses in systems thinking throughout the curriculum in order to gain a profound understanding of the links between economic systems, Earth’s biophysical boundaries, and social thresholds. It is important to realize that stand-alone courses on systems thinking will not suffice – it is crucial to critically reflect on each and every functional management discipline (as well as on management education and the business school as an institution) based on a systems thinking perspective, too, and understand their impacts.
  • The fact of the matter is that, for the most part, business schools feed on outdated business models and the fossil fuel economy. Since this is basically a question rooted in power relations and financial dependence, strong visions are needed on how business schools should feed business with the insights that our climate predicament calls for. And, yes, this means that they should stop working with companies that are not committed to the change needed to radically curb the climate crisis or transform their fossil-fuelled business model.
  • This also means that students and staff should be given the opportunity, as well as the resources and support necessary, to jointly redesign courses and create a curriculum that is no longer based on those same outdated business models and promoting neoliberal capitalism, thus shaping an environment in which future leaders are empowered to shape tomorrow’s socioeconomic system and combat the climate crisis.
  • In order to respond to the psychological needs of students (and staff), business schools could establish ‘climate corners’ for students to use as safe spaces to share and discuss their climate-related anxieties. Insights from climate psychology can benefit these exchanges and support students in coping with what they are dealing with. Additionally, business schools may appoint a climate activist-in-residence that stimulates and works with students and staff to challenge the status quo in their business school.

It is imperative that the business school community starts formulating credible answers to the above questions and our suggestions might be of service in doing so. And while they may strike as somewhat extreme at first, we should remember that the situation we are in is too.

Current approaches to dealing with these matters simply do not reflect the gravity of the existential crisis our society and business schools are in. In fact, these approaches make business schools’ claim to educate the leaders of the future sound thoroughly misguided. Failing to adjust them begs the question whether these leaders educated by business schools will have any future at all.

Failing to do so, arguably, will also answer that question.

Lars Moratis and Frans Melissen are the holders of the Chair in Management Education for Sustainability, a joint initiative by Antwerp Management School and Breda University of Applied Sciences.

This article was recently published in a slightly amended form in AACSB Insights.

2 thoughts on “Are we educating leaders for a future that will not exist?

  1. Excellent and thought provoking! Thank you for stating in clear terms the truths our natural denial mechanisms seek to hide. We need creative and innovative ways to urgently change course, and I look forward to other readers’ suggestions. I will add mine here: the same way as you suggest to embed a systems perspective across all courses, also embed conversations about our values and personal purpose. Students have been cherishing these precious opportunities in a world focused with going fast, without sufficiently checking the direction. Moreover, we can facilitate the change from inside out, which will build the emotional and spiritual skills required inn there times to come.

  2. Very good opinion article, I am fully aligned and through the Global Movement network, that is exactly what we want to promote. We focus on the need to change teaching and research in business schools, to move away from business as usual and adapt curricula to address the sustainability challenges. Our group aims at encouraging those who want to share their experience, advice, practices to inspire as much as possible educators. We would be happy to welcome you at one of our open houses and connect with you (see: https://www.globalmovement.net/). The work of the PRME group on the Sustainability Mindset, is very much aligned with this article too. Let’s connect and inspire more people!

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