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A challenge to academia to develop values-centered leaders

September 19, 2022 | 10 min read

By Bill George

We rely on universities to produce leaders who can navigate the complexities of the world and set standards for society. Are they stepping up to the challenge?

Society is facing massive problems in the US, from climate change to a global pandemic, gun violence, rampant discrimination based on race and national origin, challenges to women’s rights, voting laws and LGBTQ+ acceptance, and a widening gap between people of differing political views. To address these issues, businesses, nonprofit organizations and foundations, healthcare providers, the military and government are crying out for moral leaders who are grounded in deeply held beliefs, values and principles and who know how to lead with their hearts as well as their heads.

Our civil society depends upon universities to produce the leaders we need to navigate the complexities of the world and set the standards for the world to look to.

Are universities and their faculty members stepping up to these challenges?

Not in my opinion.

This article is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

In recent years, academic institutions have relied heavily upon statistics and research. They have been eager to train technical experts, engineers, scientists and computer scientists, along with millions of managers — but there is little focus on developing the leaders we need. Most academics pride themselves on being values-neutral rather than declaring their values and the values expected of their students. My own training is in engineering and management, but I received little to no education in leadership and values.

Because academic institutions have failed to train leaders who are clear about their values, corporations, nonprofit organizations, healthcare providers and other societal organizations have taken the lead in recent years. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer(opens in new tab/window), business leaders are the most trusted people in our society in 2022, whereas they were the least trusted back in 2009. “Societal leadership is now a core function of business,” Edelman wrote.

In the past, people looked to academic institutions to set the standards for society. Why then is there this shift? Business leaders have taken clear positions not only on their internal practices; they have spoken out on such controversial subjects as voting rights, gun safety, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and discrimination against Blacks and other minorities. Meanwhile, university faculty members and institution leaders have been relatively silent on these questions, except in cases of racial discrimination.

In recent years, authentic leaders who know how to lead with their hearts as well as their heads and have clear values have become the gold standard for leadership. Yet how many leading universities offer degrees in leadership? At which institutions can faculty members gain tenure solely for their work in leadership, as they can in other disciplines? Why do faculty members try to remain values-neutral rather than articulating clear values and encouraging students to challenge them?

Academic leaders must address these questions if they are to develop the leaders society needs to address its myriad problems.

There is no better time than their undergraduate and graduate years for students to reflect upon their values, debate values issues with others, and clarify what they believe. These years provide the perfect opportunity for students to develop their emotional intelligence with self-awareness, passion and compassion — all qualities of the heart.

For many students, this is their first experience being outside their parents' influence and their hometown norms. It is only by debating their beliefs and being challenged about complex issues and values tradeoffs that they can deepen their principles and prepare to lead others.

Regrettably, in my opinion, faculty members are often reluctant to share their own values and beliefs and to question students who express extreme opinions crying out to be challenged. In so doing, they deprive students of the opportunity to hear alternative points of view clearly stated and to know that their professors have well-articulated beliefs, grounded in deep thought and years of experience.

This is not to say that faculty should attempt to impose their values or put down students whose values differ sharply from their own. That would be crossing a line that must not be crossed. Rather, in challenging students, they enable them to recognize other points of view and to reflect on their beliefs. Alternatively, they may call upon other students to challenge their peers about these issues, stimulating lively debates. By remaining silent, they may give the impression that they agree with extreme viewpoints, leaving other students perplexed about what to think.

When I was a student at Harvard Business School (HBS)(opens in new tab/window), we studied the full range of managerial principles, but we were rarely challenged to declare how we would handle complex ethical issues. Frustrated by the unwillingness of faculty members to share their beliefs, as students we created an evening seminar with students from the Harvard Divinity School and the Episcopal Divinity School to debate complex values-based issues. Those values debates, like whether to make payments and incentives to secure business in developing markets, stayed with me throughout my career, especially during my years as CEO of Medtronic(opens in new tab/window).

When I joined the Harvard Business School faculty in 2004 as a professor of management practice (non-tenured) after 33 years in business, I joined with nine colleagues — “the best of the best” of the HBS faculty — to teach a new required course called Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA). The course was proposed by Dean Kim Clark(opens in new tab/window), a man of deeply held values. Much to my chagrin, I learned that earlier courses in ethics had failed, even raising the question, “Can ethics be taught?(opens in new tab/window)” — the title of my colleague Tom Piper’s book(opens in new tab/window).

The norm had been established not to express our points of view for fear of shutting down debate. Instead, we looked to other students to challenge their peers with different points of view, an approach that worked well. However, as a former CEO who had many direct experiences dealing with these issues, I felt it was incumbent on me to take the final 10 minutes of each class to express my insights about the case discussion and especially the character of the leaders we were studying. This approach triggered ongoing discussions outside the classroom and in my office about these issues.

The course did — and still does — a superb job of studying other leaders and creating ethical frameworks and principles. But when it came to the role of developing leaders with clear values, faculty members were hesitant to proceed. As a result, I decided to create my own course, titled Authentic Leadership Development (or ALD, as it became known), as an elective for second-year students. Half of the class time was reserved for students to meet in small groups of six without any faculty present to discuss their most intimate experiences in a fully confidential setting. This was such a radical departure from the 60- to 90-person HBS classroom that I had to go all the way to the dean to get approval. My department chair even questioned whether this was a way to spend less time teaching — which of course was the exact opposite of my intention.

ALD became so popular with students that we could not create enough classes to meet the demand for the course. As a result, many students eager to take the course were simply unable to get in. The student evaluations at the end of the course uniformly indicated that the small groups were the highlight of the course.

We struggled to get other faculty members to teach ALD because doing so required them to be vulnerable with their students in describing their life stories and their crucibles, sharing their mistakes and times they had gone off track, and explaining how they resolved difficult values dilemmas in their own work. Finally, my colleague Nitin Nohria(opens in new tab/window), who went on to become Dean of HBS, stepped forward and offered to teach the course. Then outstanding professors like Scott Snook(opens in new tab/window) and Tom DeLong(opens in new tab/window) took it over and raised the course to a higher level of excellence, which has consistently made it one of HBS’s two most requested electives.

In recent years, two of my LCA colleagues, Sandra Sucher(opens in new tab/window) and Joe Badaracco(opens in new tab/window), created an important course called The Moral Leader, which addresses complex ethical issues.

Throughout the past two decades, every class I have taught addresses complex values issues and utilizes the small group format for more personal discussions. We have learned that first debating these issues in class, and then moving to the small group sessions, enables students to go much deeper into sharing their personal experiences and getting feedback from their peers. Feedback from students long after they graduate indicates the formative impact of these discussions on their values and on their decision-making in their leadership roles.

As I articulate in my new book, Emerging Leader Edition of True North(opens in new tab/window)organizations are going through a massive change from the management of Baby Boomers to the leadership of emerging leaders — Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z — yet most academic institutions are failing to develop these leaders. That is troublesome because more than ever, organizations are looking to universities to develop moral leaders who have well-grounded beliefs and values that enable them to address the complex societal issues we are facing.

It is time for academic institutions to transform themselves by recognizing their role in developing the values-centered, purpose-driven leaders with the ability to address myriad challenges facing today’s society.

Will they step up to this challenge and transform themselves into institutions who develop moral leaders prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s society?