Core Competencies Leaders Need in a Complex World

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Tuesday, January 23, 2024
By Cheryl Kiser, Kristen Yngve
Illustration by iStock/Fahmi Ruddin Hidayat
To be able to address society’s great challenges, tomorrow’s leaders must learn to build relationships and experiment with potential solutions.
  • At Babson’s Institute for Social Innovation, students consider their relationships with a wide range of partners and entities, from stakeholders to competitors to the natural environment.
  • To implement change, students learn to start with small experiments, then build on the results.
  • During a five-week exercise called the Covid Sprint, a student team worked with a national museum to find unconventional ways to make up revenue that was lost during the pandemic.

In business school, students gain a variety of practical skills that enable them to solve complicated business problems. Societal problems, however, are not complicated; they’re complex. If future leaders are going to lift people out of poverty, reduce systemic inequalities, and address the climate crisis, they need to master competencies that go well beyond traditional disciplines.

However, for many business schools, the concept of developing societal impact leaders is still abstract and ambiguous. Marshall Ganz, a leadership expert out of Harvard University, once said that “abstraction is the enemy of meaning.” For individuals to become societal impact leaders, they must shift from abstract concepts to tangible goals.

At Babson College’s Institute for Social Innovation in Wellesley, Massachusetts, we are focused on helping both our students and our industry partners make this shift. We do this by teaching them to embrace two key activities: building relationships and experimenting with potential solutions.

A Focus on Relationships

At the Institute for Social Innovation, we believe the most crucial skill societal impact leaders must learn is one that arguably is not taught often enough at our schools: the ability to manage relationships. Not networking. Not pitching. Not adopting human-centered design. Students must learn to develop relationships that are generative and generous, not transactional and competitive.

The institute has had a hyper focus on relationships since it was founded in 2009. As one recent alumnus says, relationship-building formed the “human portion” of his graduate studies. “In a lot of classes, you learn about theories and formulas,” he adds. “Through the Institute, you learn about interacting with people and solving problems.”

While our students work with industry partners to address business problems, we don’t want student teams and corporate representatives to have typical consultant-client relationships. We ask them to be co-creators who work together to achieve better outcomes for business and society. In fact, we define “social innovation” as the practice of co-designing solutions within and outside of typical relationships.

We believe the most crucial skill societal impact leaders must learn is the ability to develop relationships that are generative and generous, not transactional and competitive.

We ask our learners to think about how they cultivate relationships between themselves and these entities:

  • the natural environment.
  • the built environment.
  • the usual stakeholders, including customers, investors, funders, beneficiaries, and employees.
  • less traditional stakeholders, including the multisector entities that serve similar stakeholders or issues, unexpected allies, collaborative competitors, and innovators in different industries.
  • public institutions.
  • society, particularly as it intersects with business.

As they explore all these relationships, students begin to understand themselves in the context of an increasingly complex world. They also can see where their business clients fit into society as a whole.

A Willingness to Experiment

Even when student teams and their industry partners know something must change, they aren’t always sure where to begin. For that reason, we encourage students to start with small experiments, using whatever means they have at hand. Once they have the first set of results, we tell them to continue to act, learn, and build. This is Babson’s Entrepreneurial Thought & Action methodology.

Experimentation allows students and clients to get messy and explore the complexities of social and environmental issues. It also allows leaders to develop the meaningful relationships they must cultivate to create authentic, enduring societal impact.

Experimentation allows students and clients to get messy and explore the complexities of social and environmental issues.

This willingness to try something new became particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as faculty advisor Dwight Gertz observed at the time. “Whatever you thought the rules were, they don’t apply right now,” he said then. “And if you try to use the old rules, you’re going to be badly damaged, if not killed, by this crisis.”

Even in a post-COVID world, we want students to form atypical relationships and continuously experiment any time they’re seeking to bring about change.

An Example in Action

We emphasized the importance of both relationship-building and experimentation during a five-week experiential learning opportunity we offered in the summer of 2020. Small teams of students and faculty worked with a handful of entrepreneurial leaders to solve immediate challenges facing their organizations at the height of the pandemic’s uncertainty. We called this the Covid Sprint.

During the sprint, one of our student teams worked with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. In a normal year, the museum’s primary revenue comes from visitors who pay to visit the attraction. But during the pandemic, people were no longer walking through the doors, and no one was certain how long that situation would last. Museum administrators wanted to know how they could use their assets and content to generate revenue until visitors were able to return.

If our students had treated the National Center for Civil and Human Rights as a typical client, they would have defaulted to known business models. They might have recommended that the center become a consultant for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But even though the center is a thought leader on DEI, and even though it houses a great deal of DEI content, being a consultant is not a core part of its identity.

We encouraged our students and the center’s leaders to embrace the uncertainty of the pandemic: to observe, be curious, and notice all the interconnected relationships among the numerous stakeholders. In some ways, the COVID pandemic made it easier for them to make this shift. No one knew anything. We had no idea how long the quarantines might persist or what the “new normal” would look like. Students and center administrators were both free to question everything they’d ever done or been taught to consider before.

We encouraged our students to embrace the uncertainty of the pandemic: to observe, be curious, and notice all the interconnected relationships among stakeholders.

We also encouraged student teams to factor in other significant issues that could have resonance for the center. For instance, George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement catalyzed a surge in demand for race-focused content as organizations needed to address growing racial tensions in companies and in dealing with the police.

To uncover relationships that might yield new sources of revenue, students conducted in-depth interviews with numerous stakeholders. Then they developed a viable experiment: piloting an online training program for U.S. law enforcement offices to help police deepen their understanding of civil and human rights. The Atlanta Police Department became the first one in the nation to train its entire force with the human rights course.

“In addition to protecting and serving, police have the responsibility of protecting the civil and human rights of all members of the community,” says Jill Savitt, president and CEO of the center. “The course focuses on rights, values, and building trust. It is designed so its lessons can be immediately applied to police culture and practices.”

‘Expertise of the Process’

Students and clients weren’t the only ones embracing uncertainty during the Covid Sprint. Faculty were required to do the same.

Typically, when professors teach case studies or visit companies, they already know what the businesses do well and what answers students are likely to find. But during the sprint, as students developed atypical relationships and looked for unconventional solutions, professors couldn’t know how the consulting projects would turn out.

As Gertz says, if you’re a professor teaching a case study, “there’s immense comfort in knowing that, with 10 minutes left in the class, you’re going to pull the rabbit out of the hat and say, ‘Here’s what the company really did.’ When you’re facilitating an experience like the Covid Sprint, you put your hand in the hat and you don’t know what you’re going to pull out. That’s very frightening for people whose comfort comes from expertise of the facts, as opposed to expertise of the process.”

But if schools are going to develop entrepreneurial leaders who create economic and societal value simultaneously, we must learn, teach, and model different ways of thinking and acting. As we continue to question the changing role of business, we must be intentional in how we start, change, grow, and disrupt our operations. And we must rely on our relationships with others to achieve our goal of creating positive societal impact.

Cheryl Kiser
Executive Director, Institute for Social Innovation, Babson College
Kristen Yngve
Associate Director, Institute for Social Innovation, Babson College
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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