Educating Leaders for a Nonexistent Future

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Tuesday, January 11, 2022
By Lars Moratis, Frans Melissen
Photo by iStock/bestdesigns
Unless business schools address climate change, there won’t be a world for our students to lead.
  • If global temperatures rise by more than 4 degrees, the results could be catastrophic for humans.
  • Business has played a major role in causing climate change, so business must address it.
  • Business schools should empower future leaders to shape new socioeconomic systems that combat climate change.

Business schools derive their legitimacy from their claim to be educating the leaders of the future and helping to build tomorrow’s corporations. Yet, today business schools are experiencing an existential crisis that goes far beyond their quest to establish an identity between practical relevance and academic credibility—beyond their need to acknowledge the part that management education has played in numerous corporate scandals—and beyond their failure to build their research and educational programs around sustainability. Their existential crisis revolves around their role in climate change.

The most recent Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presents conclusions that are nothing short of daunting: Our civilization is on a collision course with planet Earth. Climate change has already led to ecosystems going haywire. It will result in “once-in-a-century storms” happening every couple of years. Most terrifying, the IPCC estimates that, within just a couple of decades, average global temperatures will rise by somewhere between 2 degrees and 5 degrees Celsius.

Leading scientists have said they are unable to predict the consequences of these “hothouse Earth” trajectories for human and nonhuman life. They do expect, however, that exceeding 4 degrees will lead to some form of societal collapse. Last year’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow made it clear that the world will not be following a different trajectory any time soon, so we’d better buckle up. And business schools need to do more than simply go along for the ride.

The Role of Business Schools

There are three major reasons business schools must assume a huge responsibility for addressing climate change: Business plays a major role in causing and potentially tackling climate change, management education is omnipresent, and business schools have a collective mission to educate future leaders.

But there’s an additional reason that the world’s universities should be concerned about climate change—it carries a human cost that exacts a particularly heavy toll on our students. The University of Bath recently conducted research on the effects of climate change on the mental well-being of 16-to-25-year-olds in 10 countries. The survey showed that, when they consider climate change, a staggering 45 percent of respondents have feelings of anxiety and fear, while more than half of them feel sad, gloomy, angry, or helpless. Researchers came to the troubling conclusion that the absence of policies for effectively combating climate change leads to psychological distress for this generation.

Business school administrators seem to acknowledge the part they must play. Recently, the Association of MBAs and the Business Graduates Association, working with the Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics, surveyed nearly 600 senior leaders of business schools around the world. The report shows that no less than 88 percent of business school deans believe they have a responsibility to tackle climate change.

But to date, business schools have not done a good job of taking on that task. Most business schools address climate change by teaching the business case for sustainability. They focus on how sustainability efforts—notably, combating and adapting to climate change—can present businesses with market, innovation, and reputational opportunities. Within schools, management educators are also discussing how to maintain profits in a business environment that is becoming increasingly volatile due to changes in natural ecosystems.

Academic leaders need to rethink our obsession with economic value creation and redefine the roles of business and business schools in society.

This approach is not only a far cry from what is needed to create real change, it also is an inadequate response from institutions claiming to educate for the future. Business schools need to make a much stronger and more profound response, which requires them to overhaul their very worldview.

Academic leaders should begin by scrutinizing their assumptions about the role business plays in combating climate change and building the architecture of our socioeconomic systems. We need to reorient our relationship to the natural world. We need to rethink our obsession with economic value creation and redefine the roles of business and business schools in society.

The IPCC report recognizes the importance of this step. It emphasizes that the current capitalist model needs to be abandoned if we are to avoid a future in which ecological and social catastrophes are the rule rather than the exception. And while we recognize that this would be an extraordinarily difficult change, we must not hesitate to start thinking about it. If we want to pursue profound change, we must begin by imagining it.

What We Can Do

As business schools respond to our existential crisis, we need to ask ourselves the following tough questions:

  • To what extent would the programs at our schools help students survive, personally and professionally, in a hothouse Earth scenario?
  • How can we make sure business helps prevent that scenario from becoming reality?
  • Is management education the right place to offer answers to the questions and challenges posed by climate change?
  • In the context of climate change, what role can we play to foster the psychological well-being of our students?

These are some of the questions the two of us consider as we serve as the Chair in Management Education for Sustainability. This joint initiative by Antwerp Management School in Belgium and Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands was launched in January 2020. While it would be nonsensical to claim that the two of us have the immediate answers to these difficult questions, we do have some suggestions that might help academic leaders shape possible responses.

Business schools feed on outdated business models perpetrated by companies profiting from the fossil fuel economy. We should stop working with companies that are not committed to making the changes that will radically curb climate change.

First, offer all management students mandatory courses in systems thinking throughout the curriculum. This will give students a profound understanding of the links between economic systems, Earth’s biophysical boundaries, and social thresholds. Standalone courses on systems thinking will not suffice, though. It is crucial for students to reflect on each and every functional management discipline to understand its impact. They also should consider the role of management education and the business school as an institution in society.

Second, recognize that the problems contributing to climate change are rooted in power relations and financial dependence, and develop the vision to change these relationships. The fact of the matter is, for the most part, business schools feed on outdated business models perpetrated by companies profiting from the fossil fuel economy. Business schools should stop working with companies that are not committed to making the changes that will radically curb climate change.

Third, give students and staff the opportunities, resources, and support to jointly redesign courses. Encourage them to create a curriculum that neither teaches these same outdated business models nor promotes neoliberal capitalism. In this environment, future leaders will be empowered to shape tomorrow’s socioeconomic system and combat climate change.

Finally, to respond to the psychological needs of students and staff, establish “climate corners” where people can safely share and discuss their climate-related anxieties. Offer insights from climate psychology to help individuals cope with their unease. Consider appointing a climate-activist-in-residence to aid students and staff as they challenge the status quo at their business schools.

The Situation We Face

It is imperative for the business school community to start formulating credible answers to the questions presented by climate change. While our suggestions might seem extreme at first, remember that the situation we are in is also extreme.

Our current approaches to dealing with climate change simply do not reflect the gravity of the existential crisis that our schools—and our society—are facing. In fact, our current approaches make our claim to educate the leaders of the future sound thoroughly misguided.

Will tomorrow’s leaders have any future at all? If we fail to adjust our methods of teaching our students, we have already answered that question.

Lars Moratis
Chair in Management Education for Sustainability, Antwerp Management School, Breda University of Applied Sciences
Frans Melissen
Chair in Management Education for Sustainability, Antwerp Management School, Breda University of Applied Sciences
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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