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Published: August 26, 2008

 
 

The Case for Hands-on Education

To compete in science and technology, a former astronaut says, schools must augment rote learning with exploration and experimentation.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

In the early 1990s, my work as a U.S. Navy Reserve officer and civilian government official regularly took me to the Pentagon. I vividly remember seeing an exhibit there about the life and career of General George C. Marshall. Marshall was the U.S. Army chief of staff during World War II who later, as secretary of state, led the effort to reconstruct Europe that became known as the Marshall Plan. My attention was riveted by one item: an evaluation of Marshall written back when he was a first lieutenant. Near the bottom of the page was a question: “Would you have this officer in your command again?” The colonel who signed this form had checked “Yes,” and had written in, “But I would much rather serve under him.”

It’s such a simple, and yet stunning, remark. Senior military officers are not known for giving gratuitous praise and are never glib about a person’s suitability for command. And indeed, in later years, Marshall would turn out to be an extraordinary leader.

The sound-bite summary of the Marshall Plan makes it seem simple: “The victors helped rebuild the losers.” But the postwar reality in Europe was incredibly complex and, on many levels, terrible to behold. The continent was awash in displaced persons. Manufacturing, banking, and finance systems were shattered; nothing could be grown, produced, or shipped to earn the income that would allow these nations to rebuild. People in many parts of Europe were hungrier than they had been during the war.

Marshall oversaw a large, disparate, and sometimes contentious group of high-powered military of­ficers, business leaders, diplomats, and financiers that included both Europeans and Americans. In their efforts to rebuild Europe and provide an alternative to Communist expansion, they had to develop a level of cooperation and compromise that had never before existed in peacetime. Marshall’s personal temperament and capabilities made an enormous difference. He was a keen student of history, a sharp analyst, and an astute judge of character. Through intense debates and negotiations, messiness, setbacks, and even deceit, he apparently never lost his self-mastery and aura of authoritativeness. Although he kept the big-picture goal clear, he was comfortable steering toward it when the answers and even the critical questions were unknown. Perhaps most important, Marshall’s service during the war had shown observers, inside and outside the U.S., that his character was beyond question. This high moral standing gave him tremendous leverage, which was essential to developing the plan for European reconstruction.

Marshall’s complex fusion of traits and talents added up to a quality of generative leadership: the ability to bring a group to seemingly impossible courses of action by examining, testing, and overcoming their “mental models”: the deeply held assumptions and biases that hold them back. Generative leaders see — and help others see — that allegedly fixed constraints are constructs of individual and group perception, and not real barriers. This is the kind of leadership most critically needed in businesses and institutions around the world today.

I’ve come to this conclusion after reflecting on my own varied career. Currently, I’m the director of a policy institute, the Battelle Center at the Ohio State University, set up to foster better education in science, technology, engineering, and math (known by the acronym STEM). Before that, I was a science museum director, oceanographer, military officer, and astronaut. Today, science and technology education is often considered a prerequisite for national survival: Any country without a healthy supply of young scientists, technologists, and engineers will not be able to compete in the global economy. But STEM should not just be a way to increase subject matter knowledge and analytic skills for a technological elite; it can help people in all walks of life de­velop generative leadership skills.

 
 
 
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