Hot question: “Is a Liberal Arts Education the Way to Improve Business Leadership?”
This was the title of a month-long online conference which ended just the other day. Participants in this lively discussion were the Fellows of the International Leadership Forum (ILF), part of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI) in La Jolla, California, and a few invited guests. ILF Fellows comprise a non-partisan group of top leaders who meet regularly—online and in person—to discuss topics of global concern. This topic, about liberal arts and business leadership, caught the attention of Dr. Richard Farson, psychologist and President of WBSI as well as the author of several extraordinary books on leadership, including my personal all-time favorite, Management of the Absurd.
Before I tell you what they said, let me tell you who they are. Some of the Fellows who joined in this discussion were:
Raymond Alden, former President of Sprint
Herbert Blau, a theatre professional who is now Professor of Humanities at University of Washington
Douglass Carmichael, a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant
Peter Hammerling, a nuclear scientist
There were also a few guests at the conference, including Darrell Brown, Associate Undergraduate Dean at Portland State University’s School of Business, Susan Albertine of the American Association of Colleges and Universities and Kristi Lodge, Assistant Director of Career Services at University of Oregon. And then, of course, Dr. Richard Farson himself.
Okay, enough about the group’s credentials. What did they say about liberal arts as a foundation for better business leadership? Is it a way to improve business leadership?
In a word: “Yes!”
They also had more to say. I’ll summarize some of it here:
A few key remarks about education:
Education is a foundation for opening us up to a future to do something. The character of education isn’t that it’s preparing us for doing anything in particular, but all educational disciplines are avenues to the foundation on which we then create skills to apply in the job market.
Majors are, to some extent, an artificial packaging of education. No major guarantees or warrants “moral rectitude or ethical capacity.” A broad, liberal education can emerge from any major. Corporate culture could be improved if we did a better job at the undergrad level with ALL majors, including (maybe especially) Business majors.
Scholarship and philosophy are not incompatible with business. In fact business suffers without them.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that the discussion ventured early and often to the subject of the corporatization of America and the western world and whether better educated leadership would be steering us in a better direction. I’ll just give you the gist of a few (for now):
What is corporate behavior doing to us? Destruction of community, involvement in war-making, weakening of democracy, rampant corruption, ruining our health, exploitation of the working class, increasing the distance between rich and poor, tax evasion, commoditizing and trivializing broadcast journalism, deceptive advertising, and reckless pollution of our environment. Corporate control of our society is a well known fact of life.
Market-oriented capitalism isn’t inherently bad, but as it’s practiced today it is. What’s needed is much longer term expectations and associated measures of performance. The emphasis on quarterly results is destructive. The contribution of the humanities should be to explore and be aware of the tragedy of self interest in human affairs.
Reading of the humanities is seen as a reward for being successful, a kind of “high end consumer product.” It is not seen as necessary equipment for dealing with the world. But in fact it is equipment for dealing with the real world! Douglass Carmichael said: “There is nothing I have read that is so remote it is not immediately useful.” Indeed!
There’s more to tell, and if you stay tuned to these airwaves, you’ll read more. Meantime, here’s the essence: Business is woefully off-track, and is heading towards the destruction of society and culture as we know it. Maybe even mankind (witness recent poisoning of major ocean). Fixing it won’t call on the artifice of profit-manufacturing but will instead require vision, clarity of thought, an understanding of the human condition, and a willingness to make sweeping changes. While no particular educational track is direct preparation for this kind of challenge, many of the elements of leadership that are very much needed now can be traced to studies of the humanities and social sciences.