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strategy and business
 / Summer 2008 / Issue 51(originally published by Booz & Company)


The 21st-Century MBA

The Power of One
To move into a principles-plus-implementation model, business education must teach people to articulate and embody abstract principles, and to develop innate judgment for use in principle-based practice. This helps explain the increasing emphasis in many schools on individual self-awareness and on building social skills and psychological insights. This trend reflects the market demand for a customized educational experience that is relevant and empowering to the individual student, as well as the increasing influence on business schools of the hard and soft sciences, including such disparate fields as evolutionary biology, neurobiology, behavioral economics, social psychology, cognitive science, narrative psychology, and linguistics.

The complexity of human motivations, biases, and heuristics in decision making and the definitional and normative power of framing are becoming important considerations in courses that raise topics we used to see only in the ethics curriculum. Students now have the opportunity to articulate both their cognitive and their emotional approach to a situation, as well as the approaches of those with whom they wish to collaborate or whom they wish to influence. Their awareness of these factors can shape their vision and determine how effectively they can implement their decisions.

These expanded topics are addressed in a variety of ways. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management offers a weeklong experience in “crisis communication,” during which students have the opportunity to analyze and practice their responses to high-stakes conflicts as if they were talking to the press. The scenarios unfold over the course of five days, with new information and new complexities added each day. The students begin to see not only the kinds of information and analysis that are necessary to address scenarios such as product tampering or plant accidents; they also have the chance to test their presuppositions and hone their decision-making and communication skills. In another Kellogg course, Values-Based Leadership, students are exposed to research on how people tend to think about values conflicts, and they learn how “to take the disparate value propositions of various stakeholders and integrate them into a coherent vision,” according to Kellogg Professor Adam Galinsky.

The Rotman School of Management’s Marcel Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking at the University of Toronto focuses on developing a curriculum that draws on the latest cross-disciplinary research to encourage students to become more aware of, and exercise greater control over, their own reasoning processes. A new required course at Stanford University, Critical Analytical Thinking, which seeks to engage faculty from across the school’s disciplines, and a new Yale course, Individual Problem Framing, are examples of the new curricular attention to examining the ways in which habits of mind can determine and limit a person’s options. This approach is intended to teach future leaders to question their own insular or sometimes wrongheaded assumptions and frameworks; to expand their ability to understand one another when their attitudes, priorities, and backgrounds differ; and to strengthen their capacity to find common ground.

In many schools, as students set their own learning objectives and career paths, they also have the opportunity to customize their education experience. Schools are increasingly building in self-assessment experiences for their students, allowing them to understand their own individual thinking, decision-making, and interpersonal tendencies. Related exercises include self-assessment surveys and 360-degree evaluations, all addressing leadership style, learning style, and ability to work in a team. The students can then customize their education to build on their strengths and address their limitations through electives and skill-building workshops. The University of Chicago has used such tools for some time, Stanford is rolling them out to the entire student body as part of its current curriculum reform, and the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business is planning to launch a self-assessment effort of its own. At the heart of this trend is an attempt to make the insights of cognitive research directly relevant and useful to the individual students, and to help them take control of their own reasoning and action tendencies, emboldening them to pursue both the organization’s purpose and their personal purpose more effectively.

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  1. Andrea Gabor, “Lessons for Business Schools,” s+b, Spring 2008: Resources on the history of management education and its relevance to the needs of today’s business environment.
  2. Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, Fernando Napolitano, and Christopher Kelly, Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008): Illuminates how groups from different sectors working in concert can address problems none of them can solve alone.
  3. Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession (Princeton University Press, 2007): A Harvard Business School professor’s review of the history and purpose of management education and an outline for reform.
  4. Art Kleiner, “The Thought Leader Interview: Anne-Marie Slaughter,” s+b, Autumn 2007: The dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School on networks and the multisector career path.
  5. James O’Toole, Leading Change: The Argument for Values-Based Leadership (Ballantine, 1996): Management theorist looks to art, history, and philosophy to demonstrate that values-based leadership is the best way to coax organizational change.
  6. Reggie Van Lee, Lisa Fabish, and Nancy McGaw, “The Value of Corporate Values,” s+b, Summer 2005: Booz Allen Hamilton/Aspen Institute survey of corporate behavior finds that leading companies are crafting purpose-driven identities.
  7. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds.
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