Reframing Our Purpose Through Dharma

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Wednesday, August 2, 2023
By Vikas Rai Bhatnagar
Photo by iStock/Marc Andreu
By embracing a centuries-old principle based on idealized action, business schools can ensure they produce mindful graduates who add value to society.
  • Business schools must move beyond an outdated sense of purpose that focuses too heavily on training graduates to be effective decision-makers and problem-solvers.
  • Business schools can maximize their societal impact by adopting the Hindu concept of dharma, which inspires people to visualize what those in their positions should ideally do and act mindfully based on this understanding.
  • Dharma can inspire business educators to become more introspective about their own practices, as well as provide a simpler, more direct shared code of conduct for management graduates.


Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

— from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats


The rueful lament of W.B. Yeats about an anarchic world is as relevant today as it was when he penned these lines in the early 20th century. In business contexts, this lament can apply to a crisis of leadership within organizations, where people too often take the wrong actions—sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately—leading to negative results.

Business school leaders, too, increasingly doubt whether their decisions and initiatives will deliver positive results to stakeholders. They try to extrapolate from the past to predict the future, but the uncertainty remains. Driven by pressures to ensure the financial viability of their schools, some administrators resort to using aggressive marketing tactics and social media communications to manage, and often manipulate, the public’s impression of their programs.

For many, such strategies can achieve short-term success—a phenomenon that Mats Alvesson, a management scholar at Lund University in Sweden, terms “the triumph of emptiness.” But this way of thinking seldom works in the long term.

Meanwhile, administrators face additional pressure when stakeholders question the value of business education. Left with limited options, companies assess and hire business school graduates based on factors such as values, attitude, and cultural fit, and then compensate for missing knowledge via training tailored to their organizational needs. I know this firsthand—as the head of human resources for several organizations, I often designed induction programs that oriented management trainees to each organization’s business requirements.

In many ways, business schools still are finding their way, long after Warren Bennis and James O’Toole made the same point in 2005. For schools to remain viable and continue to add value to society, they must reorient their purpose. Here, the Hindu concept of dharma offers a valuable perspective.

The Practical Implications of Dharma

When people hear the word dharma, they often think of its religious overtones. It is closely linked to Vedic traditions, as psychologist Anand C. Paranjpe of Simon Fraser University explains in a 2013 paper.

But its principles have broader applications. Dharma, Paranjpe writes, encompasses the act of “performing the duties one is expected to perform in terms of one’s position and standing in the society.” It is normative and infused with idealism, and its adherence to moral norms can bring order, harmony, and predictability to society.

People who adopt dharma in their lives visualize their roles in society mindfully and idealistically. Because they understand the best outcomes they can achieve, they are empowered to take virtuous actions.

People who adopt dharma in their lives visualize their roles in society mindfully and idealistically, and they are empowered to take virtuous actions.

Likewise, by viewing a school’s initiatives and mission through the lens of dharma, administrators can be more certain the curriculum meets the needs of students, employers, and other stakeholders. More important, they can be reassured that their programs and initiatives add immense value to society.

Unfortunately, many people make three basic assumptions about the purpose of management education, as it exists today. Generally speaking, they believe that business schools should teach graduates to be effective decision-makers; that schools should arm graduates with analytical skills and multidisciplinary knowledge; and that those who practice and teach management are striving to evolve the field into a profession by adhering to a body of knowledge and following a shared code of conduct. 

But each of these assumptions can have negative dharmic implications. Graduates learn to make decisions that maximize shareholder wealth, but harm people and the environment. They use their analytical skills to solve functional problems, but not systemic ones. And they show little interest in embracing a shared code of conduct that would improve management as a whole.

Can dharma provide us with a way to reorganize management education? Let’s examine these assumptions one by one.

Questioning Assumptions

The assumption that requires the deepest examination is the first—that business schools must above all produce graduates who are effective decision-makers. By focusing so narrowly on this goal, schools perpetuate what many believe to be the outdated concept of leaders as heroes.

But graduates who embrace the idea of heroic leadership could do more harm than good. Heroic leaders might have visions that inspire others to follow, but they cannot master the knowledge of all the different domains required to carry their visions out. Herbert Simon, the 1978 Nobel laureate in economics, terms such cognitive limitations as “bounded rationality.”

Consider the pedagogical implications of the case study method, which often emphasizes heroic leadership. As learners discuss the cases, they are encouraged to take positions and evaluate the decision-making of the protagonists. Through these discussions, students are encouraged either to credit the protagonist for a “good” decision or to blame the protagonist for a “bad” one.

The method of writing and administering case studies has long been a limitation of business education, because it de-emphasizes the range of factors that led to the situation’s outcome. It also distances learners from the context of the dilemmas under review. The protagonists share their experiences in first person with the writer, who then captures these experiences in second person. The students then have a third-person experience of the business situation as they read and discuss the case. But immersion in the context of business problems is a key part of effective learning.

By focusing so narrowly on training students to be effective decision-makers, schools perpetuate the outdated concept of leaders as heroes.

We see this in an interaction involving Edwin Gay, the first dean of Harvard Business School, and mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor. In 1908, Gay invited Taylor to campus to teach his new model of industrial efficiency called “scientific management.” Taylor turned down the request, contending that scientific management could only be learned on the shop floor.

Similarly, Henry Mintzberg, in his book Managers Not MBAs, argues that the real world is not external to a business school, out there “to be plucked from some tree of practice.” Rather, for students to learn, the real world must exist in the classroom—it must become part of the learner’s mind as a lived experience.

For faculty and students, the most primary real-world lived experience they share is the management practices of their own business schools. Unfortunately, few academic administrators agree to have their decisions and mistakes presented as case studies to be discussed and critiqued.

The Benefits of Dharmic Leadership

Administrators can create a better experience if they embrace the dharmic view of leadership. This mindset, which focuses on socially driven purpose, sparks two significant paradigm shifts in pedagogy:

From “heroic leadership” to “shared leadership.” With this shift, schools no longer view their purpose as training students to be effective decision-makers. Instead, they train students to design social processes that take advantage of the collective and tacit knowledge of the team. Students learn how to draw on everyone’s talents in ways that lead to positively impactful decisions.

Consequently, graduates transcend the idea of heroic leadership to embrace the idea of shared and self-leadership. Both concepts are more in tune with the goal of humanizing organizationsFurthermore, when administrators take this perspective, they will be inspired to create ecosystems where the potential of each faculty member and student is realized and unleashed. 

From third-person case studies to first-person case studies. The management practices of a business school are the shared experiences—the common context—of faculty and students. When administrators act according to dharma, they are more willing to disclose the rationale of their decisions and offer their own management practices as live case studies.

In doing so, they not only enrich the learning experience, but also hear and act upon faculty and student perspectives on institutional problems. As management principles are best learned contextually, live case studies allow students to act more like first-person participants in the case.

Thinking Systemically, Not Functionally

Let’s now reexamine the second assumption—that business schools should train students to analyze and solve functional problems through the lens of different disciplines. This approach often fails because organizations are systems, not functions. Compartmentalizing multifunctional business problems into tight functional compartments might allow students to score high marks in exams, but it does not work in practice.

By making a paradigm shift in which they adopt dharma in their pedagogy, educators can always keep their desired outcomes in view. They will teach students to complement functional and analytical approaches with more systemic approaches to business, societal, and ecological challenges.

In the process, students will strengthen their synthesizing abilities. They will become adept at acting mindfully, visualizing emergent scenarios, and integrating diverse perspectives and stakeholder expectations.

A Simpler Form of Evolution

Finally, let’s question the assumption that management is truly evolving as a profession.

The professionalization of management itself is based on two assumptions. First, many people believe that management practitioners are always informed by management theories as they design initiatives and act on decisions—let us not forget the wise nudge of organizational psychologist Kurt Lewin, who popularized the statement, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory”!

Dharma can provide a simpler, more direct shared code for management graduates, because it is the expression of the highest, idealized form of one’s role in the world.

Second, many assume that it is enough to ask management practitioners to act in conformity with a shared code of conduct, much like the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors. In fact, a Hippocratic Oath for Managers was introduced by Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Noria in a 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review. However, their oath has not been embraced globally. The reasons are unclear—my guess is that managers might have found it too complex and difficult to summarize.

Here, too, dharma can provide a simpler, more direct shared code for management graduates. We know that students learn about their ideal performance best from what they personally experience. Therefore, it is the dharma of business schools to institute evolved management practices and teach those practices in their classrooms.

Reframing the Purpose of Business Schools

For business schools to generate the most value, we can take a theoretical ecosystems approach to reframing the generic purpose of a business school. Perhaps we can now articulate our objective this way: “The purpose of business schools is to create knowledge that generates societal impact; develop global citizens who effectively manage the triple bottom line (of people, planet, profits); and ask faculty and students to provide consulting services to help organizations improve their management practices in socially responsible ways.”

Providing consultancy services is especially important when it comes to dharma. Consulting work keeps academics close to management practice. This of course benefits business, but it also has positive spillover effects as it informs academics of the best next steps in their research and teaching.

To reiterate, dharma imbues one’s duty with an evolved and elevated sense of morality. It is the expression of the highest, idealized form of one’s role in the world. In this way, the concept resonates with Immanuel Kant’s deontological approach to ethics, in which the highest form of human actions are bereft of all motivations, interests, and preferences; instead, they are performed simply because they are the right thing to do.

By aligning all actions and initiatives with the idealized motivations of dharma, business school administrators can cut through the uncertainty surrounding the value and relevance of their institutions. Instead, they simply can promote and teach impactful leadership and produce responsible management graduates. In the process, they can ensure that “the center holds,” as Yeats might say—and that they maintain the continued relevance of management education.

Vikas Rai Bhatnagar
CEO, Hyperspace Action Research Services, and Former Professor of General Management and Chairperson of the Doctoral Program, Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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