A Curriculum That Prepares Future Leaders

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Monday, May 13, 2024
By Joan F. Marques
Photo by iStock/SDI Productions
At Woodbury University, students gain critical thinking skills through courses that focus on diversity, social responsibility, and leadership.
  • In a DEI course, students are invited to study a religion other than their own so they can educate themselves about unfamiliar cultures and traditions.
  • To practice social and moral responsibility, students immerse themselves in social issues they care about and devise potential solutions.
  • As they develop leadership skills, students learn to identify their biases, understand their mental models, and practice empathy.

Despite all the comments that poke fun at Generation Z, we have to admit that current higher education students face a huge challenge: They don’t know what they will end up doing for a living.

In today’s business world, business operations transcend borders, artificial intelligence increasingly drives services, and many professions are becoming obsolete or being replaced by automation. Students who are preparing for the career leap may find their future income options quite grim.

It is therefore not surprising that these youngsters increasingly question the value of formal education, especially when a role model such as Elon Musk expresses the opinion that a college education is unnecessary for actual learning. Musk is right when he says that most information is available for free on the internet. Where he misses the interpretational boat, however, is in describing the intangibles of higher education.

Going to college has never been about listening to lectures and passing tests. Those actions are the means toward the preliminary end of earning a degree—but their true value lies in the fact that they lead to a longer-term payoff. When students get a college education, they learn the one skill that is not attainable through self-taught processes: critical thinking.

Critical thinking helps individuals sort through the many loads of information thrown at them and enables them to choose one course of action over another. Business students gain this skill in interdisciplinary classroom settings where subjects such as finance, management, accounting, and marketing are entwined with insights from psychology, philosophy, economics, and ethics.

Over time, students will forget the things they learned in class. But once they have mastered the ability to think critically, they will continue to develop the skill. They will understand the risks of falling prey to biased thinking or adhering to inadequate mental models. Once they realize that their vision of the world is not the only one—and not necessarily the most constructive one—they might become more open to self-examination. They will be more likely to adopt the mindsets that can elevate their future performance and well-being.

A New Curricular Core

Because times, needs, and social constructs are changing, business schools should consider critical evolutions in the curriculum. It still makes sense to teach first-year students the foundations of business education, such as the POLC framework (planning, organizing, leading, and controlling) and the four P’s of marketing (product, price, place, and promotion).

Over time, students will forget the things they learned in class. But once they have mastered the ability to think critically, they will continue to develop the skill.

But I believe it is at least equally important for us to prepare our students to engage in synergistic collaboration with people who come from different cultures and have divergent mindsets. After all, today’s workforce is composed of people with diverse and varied backgrounds.

To that end, I suggest that all business schools make sure their undergraduate and graduate programs include classes on three essential topics: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); social and moral responsibility; and leadership.

Exploring the Case for DEI

Today’s students are less impressed by learning theoretical concepts, so any DEI course should include elements of action learning. It also should challenge students to step outside their comfort zones to learn about cultures or traditions that are not their own.

At Woodbury University in Los Angeles, I taught a course in which I required students to learn about a religion that they had not been exposed to earlier but about which they felt some curiosity. In larger classes, I sometimes had multiple students selecting similar religions, but I found that this exercise still worked better as an individual assignment than as a group task. Students had to connect with established groups practicing the religion, learn about important traditions by conducting interviews or attending gatherings, and sometimes do additional research. Students then made formal presentations to the class.

It was fascinating to hear a Christian discuss Buddhism, a Muslim talk about Daoism, and a Hindu share knowledge about Judaism. Students frequently highlighted commonalities with and differences from their own religions, and most of them came away with new respect for traditions that were “other” to them.

As an educator, I found that this exercise not merely opened minds but also paved the way for greater receptiveness to cross-cultural differences. I learned something from each exercise as well—and what is more enriching than learning while you teach?

Working Toward the Common Good

I believe the topic of social and moral responsibility also should be presented as an experiential journey. At Woodbury, we give students opportunities to identify and address social issues they care about. Over the past nine years, these opportunities have been offered in the Business Ethics course in our BBA program and the Ethical Leadership course in our MBA. At both levels, students work within what we call the Responsibility Action Triangle.

A teal-green pyramid that shows how studenets progress through the "responsibility action triangle"

In the first layer of the triangle, students identify their topics of interest, which might include helping the homeless, alleviating hunger, supporting animals, caring for the elderly, aiding disabled veterans, planting trees, creating neighborhood gardens, or cleansing the environment. Among Woodbury students, I have noticed that the social cause of poverty alleviation has been the absolute leader. Once students have chosen their areas of focus, they conduct research so they understand the scope of the problem and can back up their knowledge with statistics.

In the second layer, they develop a profile of an organization that addresses the problem. My students frequently connect with local groups that can always use helping hands, such as the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, Meet Each Need with Dignity (MEND), or the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition. Over time, instructors learn which organizations are more accessible, so they can help students avoid frustrating red tape.

In the third layer, students come up with strategies to improve the situation, which often includes working with an existing nonprofit. In those cases, students interview its spokesperson and choose days when they can serve as volunteers. During this time, they also chronicle their own involvement so they can make presentations to the class in which they describe their intentions, actions, and reflections.

Some students become deeply involved in the organizations they have chosen for their class projects. Others start nonprofits of their own after graduation. The power of such exercises does not lie in the short-term good students can do during the course of a single semester, but in the experience they gain and the paradigm shift it instigates in their own perspectives.

Learning the Keys to Leadership

I believe leadership can be an overarching theme in most business disciplines because it helps students develop the skill of critical thinking. The following elements of leadership can be infused into many types of courses:

Understanding and identifying biases. Because biases form an element of the decision-making process, they should be examined in any course that is related to human interactions, including DEI, leadership, ethics, and entrepreneurship. When students are recurrently encouraged to be aware of their personal blind spots, they are more likely to address them.

Understanding our mental models. All of us construct mental models—our own interpretations of how the world works. Many of these models are influenced by our upbringing, our cultures, and our beliefs. They serve as practical bridges between what we know and what we are currently experiencing, so they allow us to make quick decisions. However, they also reflect our implicit biases. This means that when we do not examine our mental models, we might make discriminatory and shortsighted decisions that could harm ourselves, our organizations, and society as a whole.

As with bias, mental models can be discussed in many business classes, especially those on organizational behavior, leadership, human resources, and change and conflict. For instance, when I am discussing how to handle conflict at work or deal with in-groups and out-groups, I can point out how team clusters emerge. I can remind students that it is common for individuals to exclude or mistrust others solely based on external features or assumptions—and encourage them to challenge the mental models that lead us to these conclusions.

Because biases form an element of the decision-making process, they should be examined in any course that is related to human interactions.

Practicing empathy. Some business leaders frown on the notion of exhibiting empathy, because they fear that an empathetic manager could be overrun by employees. Instructors also worry that, if they are too compassionate, students will try to take advantage of them. But leaders can be both empathetic and firm.

Instructors can model that balanced behavior by listening actively to students who have problems, and even creating special accommodations as needed. However, even caring instructors will not hand out A’s if troubled students do poor work.

When students complain to me because they received low grades, even when they did not perform well, I gently explain that business education is designed to prepare them for successful performance in the work world. It is my moral duty to assist them to become the best they can be—by listening to and understanding their problems while being honest about how they need to improve. By being both empathetic and firm, I teach students to treat their employees in a similar fashion.

Bracing for the Future

Critical thinking is the skill that will serve students best as they graduate into an uncertain and evolving business world. One reason that world will be so unpredictable is that none of us are sure how it will be shaped by generative AI (GenAI), which enables users to create high-quality text, graphics, and videos in a matter of seconds.

Educators have multiple concerns about the advent of GenAI in the classroom. For instance, how can they be sure students are submitting work that is actually theirs? If students are abundantly applying AI, have they actually mastered the desired skill? Most schools are already exploring ways to address these questions.

However, the larger issue might be: How will AI change employment opportunities for upcoming generations? There, the answer will only be revealed over time.

But as more of our students learn to embrace technology and prepare themselves to work in tech-heavy workplaces, I think business schools have one clear obligation. We must help leaders be the best they can be. In all of our courses, we must focus on the most important leadership responsibility we have. We must teach our students how to balance their enthusiasm for AI’s features and financial advantages with a desire to safeguard the planet. As they hone their critical thinking skills, they will be ready not only to stay in step with an evolving labor market, but also to protect our world on behalf of those from whom we have the planet on loan: our descendants.

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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