The culture of the Master of Business Administration is the culture of narcissism, fragmentation, loneliness, and death… unless it’s tethered by an active, caring commitment to community, to stakeholders, and to a reverence for the great natural and human systems in which we all live. To say anything less harsh is to succumb to moral passivity, to write yourself a ticket to stand by and not do enough, whatever good you’re doing.
Less unsustainability is not more sustainability, and modern business is starting from a pretty deep level of “un-“, despite a few bright green lights here and there.
It took me three long weeks to summon the clarity and resolve to write the above (after knowing for more than a quarter-century that it had to be written).
Why the tortured hesitation? All I had done was put out “OccupyMBA” in the warm Occupy Wall Street spirit of early November, with a clever teaser about the arch pokes I would soon be making at conventional MBA programs. The next move was supposed to be easy. Directing an MBA program is my job, and ours is a deliberate breakaway from the conventional. We’re actually doing caring, committed, reverent B-school in an authentic fashion on a routine basis now, four years after our launch. It’s never perfect, but it’s getting better and better, and it’s no scam.
Where the torture lay was in the hideous emergence of the oppressive whole from a set of seemingly innocuous parts. There’s no doubt that the dominant global MBA paradigm is fully aligned with the swollen financial sector, each new financial bubble, corporatism, money-tainted politics, consumerism, climate change denial, neocolonialism, and other strands of the rope strangling our world.
Do you see B-school deans out sleeping with the occupationists, or their students getting pepper-sprayed as they protest the future-debasing nature of discounted cash flow analysis? I haven’t.
Yet, charge a business school academic with the perpetuation of unsustainability and one is likely to hear the defiant scoff that business administration consists of concepts, tools, and practices that are value-neutral, to be evaluated based on how they are used, by whom, to what ends. One person might put their finance to work developing derivatives that understate risk and cheat investors out of millions. A classmate might use the same knowledge to build microcredit programs for poor communities. We’re just honest vendors of neutral knowledge, say the conventional B-schools – research-based “best” practices – and what the world does with it is as diverse and morally ambiguous as the world itself. Throwing in an ethics course might bias graduates toward the right choices, come to think of it! Or even an MBA Oath!
That’s nonsense. It’s worse than that. It’s evil.
A perceptual challenge with dominant paradigms is that they truly are synergistic and emergent, and vanish from detection at the level of their parts, which are usually human beings and small groups, with their human personalities, warmth, humor, sympathetic non-verbal communication, apparent decency, vulnerability, mortality, and (usually) naïve unawareness of their role in the reproduction and maintenance of the paradigm. Look too closely, and you see nothing. When I visit my alma MBA-mater, Wharton, I see comfortable study spaces, friendly faces, stimulating conversations, and nice nooks for a coffee and laptop session under a leafy ficus tree. I don’t see a system of oppression slowly grinding down the Earth’s life-support systems and moving wealth across the planet from the many poor to the few very rich. But let’s face it: that’s exactly what’s happening, and Wharton is one of many places where they/we train.
That’s the truth we need to hold on tight to, and speak to power. There are solutions. Just because truths vanish upon close inspection doesn’t mean that they will not re-emerge when we pull back. That is one of the most joyous, heart-rending, tragic, awfully righteous contributions of the OWS movement. The macro-obvious lack of economic justice and economic democracy is pointed out, transcending all the traps that would suck you down below the level where you know or care. OWS is a drumbeat now. I hope it doesn’t falter, because we need to stay aware of the larger truth, even as we devote ourselves to practical change in the local and the micro and the immediate.