Developing Leaders Who Will Make a Societal Impact

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Monday, January 22, 2024
By Grace McCarthy
Photo by iStock/LeoPatrizi
The University of Wollongong’s LILAC model of engagement encourages students to think about ways to make the world a better place.
  • Listening exercises help students understand the challenges their classmates face and prepare them to be more culturally sensitive in the workplace.
  • Interactions with alumni inspire current students to strive to make a difference, and visits with Aboriginal people show students how much they still need to learn.
  • Students apply their new knowledge to real-world situations and reflect on the ways they will commit to bringing about positive societal change.

Students are our hope for a better world. They care about the environment and climate change, they care about social justice, and they care about the future.

At the University of Wollongong’s School of Business in Australia, we encourage our students to create positive societal impact through something we call the LILAC Model. We listen to our students, seek to inspire them, help them learn about important current topics, give them opportunities to apply their knowledge, and urge them to commit to effecting positive change. Because we are delivering programs that align with their own values, we hope to tap into their motivation to change the world.

Here’s a closer look at what each of these LILAC elements means.

We Focus on Listening

To show our students that listening is a key part of responsible leadership, we first make a point of listening to them. We don’t view students simply as learning machines or brains to be educated. We view them as whole people who have knowledge to offer us.

While we have long had student representatives in key groups such as the Education Committee, we are seeking more ways to get input from a broader range of learners. For instance, we are introducing a Student Council that includes individuals from different programs and stages of study. Council members also reflect the many forms of diversity present in our student body.

Next, we show students how important it is for them to listen to others. In class, we ask MBA students to pair up to discuss work-related issues. During this activity, one person speaks; the other person can only listen without asking questions. The act of simply listening is a transformative experience for managers who are used to jumping immediately to problem-solving mode.

In other exercises, students have opportunities to share thoughts about their common challenges and hear details about the specific obstacles some of their classmates face. Because our programs include participants from many parts of the globe, students can learn a great deal by listening to their peers.

The act of simply listening is a transformative experience for managers who are used to jumping immediately to problem-solving mode.

We encourage students to provide information about their home countries and the journeys they took to arrive where they are now. Students have told personal stories and brought in poems, pieces of art, and videos that have helped them create a sense of connection with their classmates. They learn that their shared humanity is more important than their visible differences.

Such exercises help our students acquire cross-cultural sensitivity, which is a critical skill for managers who will be expected to work with people from different cultures. We reinforce that skill by having our students in Australia partner on projects with our students in Dubai. As they work together, they develop practical strategies that show them that collaboration across borders and time zones is not only possible but fun.

We Seek to Inspire

One of the best ways we have found to inspire our students is to highlight examples of alumni who are already making a difference in the world. Current students can relate to alumni, recognizing them as individuals who have sat where they are sitting now—and who have found the courage to champion change.

One example is Parrys Raines, who earned her MBA from our school in 2023. At the age of 14, Parrys founded an environmental educational movement called Climate Girl. She has spoken several times at the United Nations Environment Programme, and she continues to advocate for environmental awareness and sustainability in multiple Australian and international forums. Through her actions, she challenges others to take responsibility for their impact on the planet.

Like Parrys, many of our other graduates happily give back, often by attending an annual industry conference for MBA students. Many of our former students also participate in webinars that cover a variety of themes, including climate action; the future of work; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and the challenges faced in sectors such as financial services and real estate.

We Want Students to Learn

A vital responsibility for every university is to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to meet the future. At the University of Wollongong, we specifically prepare our students to make ethical decisions about climate action.

One way we have done this is by introducing a carbon literacy module to our undergraduate and MBA programs. It is based on a program developed by Queensland University of Technology in partnership with the Carbon Literacy Project. We do not expect our business students to become technical experts in this field. But we do want them to be able to hold meaningful conversations about climate action, to follow discussions about the topic in the media and the workplace, and to know how to fact-check claims.

We also see huge opportunities for our students to learn about the environment from Aboriginal people, who have been caring for the land and waters in Australia for more than 60,000 years. First Nations people can teach us traditional ways to manage the landscape in response to the wildfires, floods, and other extreme weather events that have become more common as a result of global warming. For instance, many parts of Australia are re-adopting the practice of “cultural burning,” which First Nations people have long used to reduce the risk of uncontrolled catastrophic fires.

In an outdoor setting, an Aboriginal elder asks business students to speak and listens carefully to each observation before offering his own thoughts.

In one exercise, an Aboriginal elder asks each student to speak and listens carefully to each observation before offering his own thoughts.

Interacting with Aboriginal leaders shifts the attitudes of our students. Previously, students might have perceived Aboriginal people from a deficit model focused on poorer comparative outcomes such as higher incidences of ill health. When the school acknowledges that Aboriginal elders have the wisdom to help us meet global challenges, students develop greater respect and realize how much the elders have to teach them.

In one exercise, Aboriginal leaders guide our MBA candidates through the rainforest and offer simple lessons that students can transfer to their own contexts. For instance, Aboriginal leaders might tell students that they only take one piece of wood from the forest to use as a spear, because they only fish with one spear. This simple illustration highlights that all of us should take only what we need.

During these walks, it is common for the whole group to sit on the ground together. The Aboriginal elder asks each student to speak, acknowledges each person’s contribution, and speaks last. This is a practice that many of our students take back to the workplace.

We Teach Students to Apply Lessons

As a way to fulfill the school’s commitment to developing socially responsible graduates, we give students opportunities to apply classroom theories to real-life challenges. For example, students in two of our MBA subjects recently worked on projects with End Street Sleeping, a diverse collaboration of organizations addressing homelessness in New South Wales.

In the MBA marketing subject, students evaluated End Street Sleeping’s current and potential value propositions. They explored how the organization could build sustainable thinking and processes into its marketing activities in order to build better value for its stakeholders.

To develop socially responsible graduates, we give students opportunities to apply classroom theories to real-life challenges.

In the MBA design thinking and business transformation subject, students investigated ways to end street sleeping by 2030 using a human-centered and place-based approach.

Working on real-world challenges helps students integrate the knowledge they gain across multiple classes and shows them how theory can be applied in practice to attack global and local problems.

We Encourage Students to Commit

It is not enough for our students to understand theory and write about it, however beautifully. We want them to commit to making a difference.

They can start to do this by reflecting on what they have learned on their educational journeys, deciding what they want to change in the future, and articulating what they must do to succeed. Our MBA students make these reflections on both personal and organizational levels. Their efforts are enriched by the self-awareness they develop when they complete the Competency Assessment for Responsible Leadership. This tool allows people to assess their knowledge in areas such as stakeholder relations, systems understanding, ethics and values, and change and innovation.

Alumni also can commit to staying informed on current issues by attending our webinar series. This series, which covers subjects from climate change to sustainable finance, recognizes that some of the topics we now regard as essential were covered inadequately or not at all in previous years. Through the webinars, we can share our updated knowledge with our alumni and our community partners so that together we can make a difference.

Living by LILAC

If our students are going to flourish in this rapidly changing society, and if they are going to be champions of change themselves, they need more than disciplinary knowledge and hard skills. They need to understand how to make a difference.

Through our LILAC Model, we hope to show them the way. When students know that we believe in them, they will be willing to put in the work required to achieve positive change.

Grace McCarthy
Dean of the School of Business, University of Wollongong
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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