Preparing Leaders to Thrive in a Diverse World

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Wednesday, June 14, 2023
By Kelly Dore
Photo by iStock/Ivan Gonzalez
By prioritizing cultural intelligence in their teaching and admissions, business schools can unlock a brighter future for business.
  • Cultural intelligence is an increasingly critical leadership skill, encompassing the ability to respect and empathize with individuals who have a range of perspectives and experiences.
  • Business schools must be deliberate about integrating soft skills training into not only their courses, but also their extracurricular activities and faculty workshops.
  • Schools also can adopt holistic admissions processes that identify applicants who demonstrate the aptitude for culturally intelligent leadership.


In today’s diverse world, business professionals are increasingly asked to serve stakeholders in a global marketplace, all while making broad and meaningful societal impact. In this context, effective leaders and healthy organizations must possess high levels of cultural intelligence. In other words, they must have the ability to respect, communicate with, and empathize with people who are culturally different from themselves. They must be open to hearing a variety of perspectives and willing to consider novel ways of addressing complex problems.

Cultural intelligence requires a suite of competencies, including adaptability, communication, empathy, ethics, and teamwork, also known as soft skills (or “smart skills,” and even more recently “durable skills”). These are competencies business students will need if they are to design truly inclusive workplaces supported by the benefits that cultural intelligence brings—and ones they’ll need to develop before they step into their first professional roles.

That’s where business schools have a key role to play. A business school is well-positioned to introduce the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) to students long before they submit their first job applications. Through business education, students can hone their ability to assess situations while also considering solutions, opportunities, and implications that fall outside the norm.

But how exactly can business schools ensure that their programs are producing empathetic business professionals with a deep understanding of DEIB principles and the ability to competently lead diverse workplaces? Simply evaluating students’ performance on tests and multiple-choice quizzes will not be enough. Rather, to produce culturally intelligent leaders who are equipped to achieve societal impact, educators must take a far more holistic approach that encompasses both their programs and admissions processes.

The Importance of Empathy

Empathy is one of the most important skills associated with cultural intelligence. Long considered a critical leadership skill, empathy allows someone to connect personally with another’s lived experience. It leads to stronger communication, teamwork, and collaboration, and supports healthier workplace environments.

The authors of a study from the University of Michigan conducted a meta-analysis to determine whether the empathy levels of college students had changed over time. The results were alarming. Based on data involving 14,000 students between 1979 to 2009, the university found that college students exhibited a 48 percent decrease in empathetic concern and a 34 percent decrease in perspective-taking.

Research points to the rise of more individualistic cultures as one reason behind empathy’s decline. The good news is that research also shows that empathy can be taught.

The UM study reflects a larger global trend. In a 2017 study, psychologists at the University of Waterloo noted that, as socioeconomic conditions improve for people worldwide, individualistic attitudes are becoming more prevalent. The study’s co-authors cited the rise of more individualistic, do-it-yourself cultures as one reason behind empathy’s decline.

The good news is that research also has shown that empathy can be taught. According to a 2006 study by scholars at the University of Washington School of Medicine, workshops that trained medical students in communication skills led to positive behavioral results for the participants.

Selecting Students for Inclusivity

To become culturally intelligent leaders, business students must come to understand the value of inclusivity and belonging, both at a societal level and within smaller community networks. Business schools can take several steps to make sure students get this exposure:

Be deliberate about including DEIB content in the curriculum. When it comes to cultivating cultural intelligence, adding relevant content to the curriculum is likely the first thing educators will consider. However, this content is unlikely to appear organically. Rather, schools should be intentional about integrating DEIB content into their courses and learning objectives, setting benchmarks, and tracking progress. They should do more than simply recommend its inclusion—or worse, leave it to chance.

Train faculty and staff. Schools can make it more likely that their programs teach cultural intelligence if they offer workshops on the topic to faculty and staff. In such workshops, schools can clearly illustrate how faculty and staff can put this information to work on campus. For example, schools can promote soft skills by bringing in external companies to run free workshops. Or they can provide resources that enable faculty to design mandatory internal or external courses that cover the importance of cultural intelligence.

Test for soft skills development. Schools can test for durable skills periodically throughout the program to measure students’ progress. By including formative and summative assessments of these attributes, each aligned to program-specific goals and objectives, schools will further prioritize these skills in their curricula.

If assessments reveal problems, faculty can create the right interventions, delivered through academic advising, to ensure students are graduating with skills they need to be socially intelligent. Moreover, they can supplement these assessments with relevant case studies and goal-setting activities that further engage students in developing these skills. 

Adopt holistic admissions processes. Although the content of business programs is important, schools can start the process of training culturally intelligent leaders far earlier—during the admissions process. At this stage, they can assess applicants for both academic and nonacademic skills, looking beyond book smarts, grades, and test scores to capture a clearer picture of applicants as a whole.

Holistic admissions practices can help schools identify any unique experiences that applicants bring to the table, as well as determine which applicants are most likely to strengthen their cultural intelligence over the long term. In other words, schools not only can cultivate these skills, but select for them.

Assessing Applicants’ Soft Skills

The application essay has long been one way that business schools have assessed applicants’ nontechnical strengths. But business schools have a range of other tools they can use. They can include criteria on applications and ask questions in applicant interviews that focus on nontechnical, mission-specific experience. For instance, if their programs prioritize aspects of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, schools can ask about students’ experience with the SDGs.

However, a word of caution: Schools must make sure that any criteria or questions they add do not introduce bias against certain groups. For example, it’s important to avoid prioritizing study or work experiences that are available only to those living in large urban centers.

There are also soft skills assessments available on the market that support holistic admissions. These include Casper, a situational judgment test (SJT) offered by my company, Acuity Insights. The SJT evaluates professional skills such as collaboration, empathy, ethics, professionalism, and problem-solving through an open-response test that allows applicants to describe how they would react to different real-world scenarios.

Schools might want to pair students who struggle with soft skills with strong mentors—just as they might provide tutoring support to applicants whose academics are slightly below average.

The test asks students how they would respond to 14 real-world scenarios, presented via both brief videos and text. Each response is graded by an independent rater. Before students take the test, we provide them with examples to help them prepare for the format.

In one sample video, a customer asks a sales representative to accept the return of an item without a receipt, saying that he needs the money to pay for his daughter’s medicine. Given that such a return would violate store policy, test-takers must share how they would handle the situation. Or, a text-based question might ask students to “think of a time when you had to make a sacrifice to accomplish a goal.” They then are asked to share what they learned from that experience that can be applied to their desired careers.  

Unlike many knowledge-based assessments, the SJT takes into account ethnic and racial demographic differences among applicants. Its design aims to eliminate the cultural biases that are often part of other measures such as grade point average and standardized tests. Because no question has a single correct response, applicants with different backgrounds or perspectives can share different courses of actions and reasoning. 

If applicants’ scores indicate that they struggled across most or all of the 14 scenarios, that doesn’t mean their applications should be rejected. However, if students with low SJT scores are admitted based on other criteria, schools might want to pair them with strong mentors or have advisors check in with them throughout the program—just as they might provide tutoring support to applicants whose academics are slightly below average.

Cultivating DEIB Beyond Admissions

In the upcoming decades, organizations worldwide will be seeking out future leaders who have empathetic mindsets, who value DEIB principles, and who have the skills to effect positive change. But for these leaders to be available, in the numbers the world will need, business schools must model, teach, and select for cultural intelligence in their programs and cultures.

They can start by admitting diverse student cohorts, promoting soft skills training in their courses, and vocally championing cultural intelligence and diversity. By taking these steps, business schools will commit not only to creating more inclusive programs and campuses, but also to producing culturally intelligent leaders—leaders prepared to tap into the power of diversity to imagine much-needed solutions.

Kelly Dore
Vice President of Science and Innovation, Acuity Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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