Teaching Sustainable Leadership in a VUCA World

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022
By Joan F. Marques
Photo by iStock/skynesher
Woodbury University’s School of Business employs five strategies to turn out graduates who are ready to tackle the world’s great challenges.
  • Students learn to address real-world issues by launching projects with local organizations.
  • Business executives from the school’s advisory board interact with students to provide mentorship and career guidance.
  • Students gain leadership insights by serving on campus organizations, learning to give positive feedback, and being introduced to meditation techniques.

The needs of the 21st-century world are in stark contrast to anything people believed in, adhered to, or taught in the previous century. More than ever before, we realize that we live on a finite planet with finite resources. We are a vulnerable cohort, and we must safeguard our existence to be in good standing on spaceship Earth.

If humans are to survive, future business leaders must change the way they think and act. That means business schools must change the way they train students to think about their plans, actions, priorities, and responsibilities. Gone are the days that we could promulgate the stomp-on-others’-throats-to-get-ahead mindset. Climate change, repeated community uprisings, emerging movements for societal and environmental justice, and myriad media outcries have overtly confronted us with the necessity to increase our collective and individual awareness.

Up until now, business schools have focused on ensuring that each student has the ability to use shrewd negotiation tactics, outline expansion strategies, and analyze trends. Those are admirable skills for graduates to possess. However, over the past decade, it has become clear that business leaders must work toward preserving a sustainable future. This task is even more urgent because they are operating in a VUCA environment—one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

Fortunately, current students have been living on this same planet, and they have been exposed to today’s and tomorrow’s realities. As a matter of fact, a vast majority of students entering higher education in business fields are convinced that gems of wisdom can be acquired from all cultures and that no single ideology has all the answers. Therefore, many of them are eager to search for insights that will make constructive differences in their communities.

Furthermore, most of these students already have experienced or been exposed to one of today’s key paradigm shifts. They have seen many businesses go from prioritizing wealth and trivializing social welfare to primarily focusing on doing the right thing and trusting that wealth will follow at the right time and in the right form.

At Woodbury University’s School of Business in Burbank, California, we use five strategies to raise student awareness of social issues and prepare them to be sustainable leaders. We give them real-world experiences, introduce them to business mentors, encourage them to join student organizations, provide them with opportunities to recognize each others’ efforts, and teach them centering exercises.

Taking Direct Action

While analyzing cases and discussing video presentations will provide students with opportunities to learn, nothing surpasses the impact of engaging in real-life situations. When students are confronted with actual issues in their local communities, they elevate their awareness of the needs of groups they might barely have noticed in the past. They also acquire greater mindfulness about their own actions and frequently discover noble opportunities to make sustainable differences.

At Woodbury, we implement real-world learning by following these five steps:

We divide students randomly into teams. Students won’t get to choose their colleagues in the professional world, so we do not allow them to choose their teammates for this exercise.

We invite teams to brainstorm about social trends that they most wish to address. Over the years, our students have gravitated toward causes they are passionate about, such as homelessness, hunger, nature conservation, veteran support, and recycling and waste reduction.

When students are confronted with actual issues in their local communities, they elevate their awareness of the needs of groups they might barely have noticed in the past.

We discuss with team members the challenges that these social issues present. We want them to consider the pros and cons of creating solutions for these issues. What limitations and barriers might require them to adjust their plans?

We ask teams to engage in small class projects that will create constructive change. At the same time, we encourage them to envision how they might take their projects to more ambitious levels at a later time once the class is over.

We require teams to make formal presentations about their accomplishments. Not only should they include statistics about their areas of involvement, but they also should discuss the lessons they learned and the future approaches they have planned.

While students are not required to continue their projects after completing the course, some have become so dedicated to their causes that they seek to stay immersed. I have seen student teams start nonprofit organizations that provide monthly packets to the homeless; adopt new habits of giving monthly or weekly assistance to a local food bank, veteran support center, or food kitchen; and become outspoken advocates and sponsors of the interest groups they worked with for their projects.

Learning from Mentors

One of the best ways to prepare students for successful careers is to give them opportunities to interact with seasoned professionals. However, sometimes it’s difficult for schools to provide mentors to all students. The answer might be to utilize the presence of a passionate and active business advisory board that consists of current and retired business leaders from a wide range of local industries.

At Woodbury University, we have established a “rotating executive in residence” program. Every week, advisory board members take turns meeting with students in half-hour one-on-one sessions. Students choose which business leaders to meet with based on their professional aspirations.

During these mentoring sessions, students might receive pointers about how to strengthen their résumés, secure internship opportunities, and even land jobs. The business leaders also share with students the do’s and don’ts they have learned along the way. These mentoring relationships have proven to be great primers that will help students become successful leaders in the future.

Practicing Leadership

Schools also can promote responsible leadership by sponsoring student organizations. Because Woodbury’s School of Business is one of the smaller AACSB-accredited institutions, we have only four formal student organizations, each with a different focus. But we believe that a school doesn’t need thousands of attendees or dozens of campus groups to provide students with opportunities to polish their leadership skills and learn to network advantageously.

The faculty advisors for these organizations allow the student boards to exert responsible leadership; advisors only assist when needed and without being intrusive. Over the years, I have witnessed the student leaders gaining confidence, learning better social skills, and fine-tuning their organizational skills in admirable ways.

A school doesn’t need thousands of attendees or dozens of campus groups to provide students with opportunities to polish their leadership skills and learn to network advantageously.

I also have seen that students who serve on boards often rise to leadership positions in their professional careers as well. Many start their own businesses or make swift moves toward supervisory and higher roles. I believe some of their success can be credited to the skills they developed while serving on student boards.

Expressing Appreciation

One key skill that leaders must learn is how important it is to give positive feedback. To help students develop this ability, we have instituted a final exercise in the core leadership class for undergraduates. It was inspired by a TED Talk by Drew Dudley, who encourages audience members to identify and thank the people who have helped them shape their careers. These “lollipop moments” show individuals how their actions have had positive consequences and encourage them to consciously try to create more such moments in the future. As Dudley says, “Leadership recognized is leadership created.”

We also call our exercise Lollipop Moments. Students are given as many notecards as there are peers in the class. They write one anonymous card for each classmate, detailing how the recipient has made a difference for them during the course. The instructor collects the cards, collates them, and distributes them to the class members. This warmhearted practice of appreciation often catches students off-guard, as many of them are unaware of the positive impact they have made on several of their peers.

Several of my working students have adopted Lollipop Moments in their offices. They have told me that this practice has increased morale in their workplaces.

Learning to Center

Great leaders also need strategies that will help them attain mental and emotional balance. If the faculty members in charge of a classroom are interested, I encourage them to conduct centering exercises that will help students achieve balance and expand their mindsets about the leadership priorities in their lives. When I am the instructor, I use the insight meditation called Vipassana. Because it is secular, it is not offensive or inhibitive to students who come from a variety of cultures or religious backgrounds.

I dedicate 15 minutes of at least one class meeting to Vipassana. I ask students to focus on their breathing and realize that it is a manifestation of being alive. I first have them focus on the way the air arises and passes through their nostrils. Then I invite them to contemplate the fact that everything arises and passes, much like our breath: windfalls, pitfalls, new and old relationships, jobs, positions, and even life. Everything is impermanent. Invariably, several students approach me after the class to find out how they can continue to practice this form of centering. I refer them to the rich collections of videos on YouTube, such as this one, that address this and other related topics.

Insight meditation is just one of many ways that instructors can encourage students to refocus on what matters in life and get some distance from the things that keep their minds captive. Students also can release stress by practicing yoga, taking long walks, and listening to classical music. As they develop mindfulness and self-awareness, they will learn to rethink actions and decisions before executing them, which is another trait of successful leaders.

Looking Ahead

We live in unpredictable, hectic times where change is the only constant. But we also have the advantage of living in an era where there is more receptiveness toward breaking through obsolete patterns, overcoming implicit biases, and opening ourselves to critical and liberated thinking. It is up to us—the leaders and role models in business education—to teach and practice the way we want the business world to be in the future.

Joan F. Marques
Dean and Professor of Management, School of Business, Woodbury University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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