Step up: Leaders on the Move participants visit top CEOs along the way. Picture: LEADERS ON THE MOVE
Step up: Leaders on the Move participants visit top CEOs along the way. Picture: LEADERS ON THE MOVE

The capacity of management education to transform society is only as great as the business schools that train the country’s future leaders.

This demands that business schools reform their vision so that it promotes the values of serving society to enable graduates to see leadership and management as a calling rather than simply a career.

Following the state capture chaos, the Steinhoff debacle and other scandals, management educators are asking some difficult questions. These include the following: do curriculums reinforce models of organisational behaviour that are inimical to modern society? Do programmes fail to reflect how future managers should lead people to achieve high performance and embrace ethical conduct? How can we train leaders to value social responsibility and the public good? How can scholarly research be made relevant to real-world experience?

There are more questions. How will we prepare leaders to reap the democratic dividend of African youth? How will we educate our future leaders to understand that they need to think globally and act locally? And how will we integrate issues regarding sustainability, poverty, inequality, corruption, governance and inclusive development into our management education curriculum?

To answer these questions, we must acknowledge that we need to teach students that with power comes an obligation to create benefit for all in society.

Management education is facing challenges created by both a "wounded" political economy and fast-paced changes in the operational environment. The real world and working life are changing at an accelerating pace. The demand for better management education has probably never been greater.

Management education alone cannot generate solutions, but it is best positioned to bring the change we need at the scale we need it. However, it will have to be transformed. Too much emphasis is now being placed on theory rather than practice, so that graduates are unprepared to deal with the complex problems of the world. They lack meaningful, relevant management education that teaches them cross-disciplinary thinking, gives them broad familiarity with humanistic and scientific trends and instils practical wisdom to make decisions based on deep notions of what is good for the community they are part of.

Management education must reflect the new context in which business schools are engaged, and focus on developing the whole manager — one who both exerts a powerful influence on society and is a member of the society shaped by their decisions.

Taking on this renewed sense of responsibility will yield individuals who see opportunities where others may not. We need to provide our students with the intellectual building blocks to find creative solutions to our emerging problems.

Business schools must evolve from being focused on the transfer of knowledge from faculty to participants to crafting powerful change experiences. In this context, the heart of the work is no longer knowledge but transfer — the capacity to apply knowledge to different contexts facing both educators and students.

This work does not end when participants understand a new concept. They must be able to apply it to create their own solutions.

However, solutions created today won’t be the ones needed for tomorrow. This means the focus should not be on quick fixes but on building the capacity to learn and constantly find new solutions. New, agile leaders need the capacity for innovation and change.

Management education must be linked to national human resource development and the production of scientific and other knowledge to service the economic, political, cultural, moral and intellectual development of the nation.

Many of today’s students can already see the changes that their education does not address. They are receptive to the idea of a calling or vocation motivating their professional and personal lives. What is not keeping pace are management education and the curriculum.

Management education has an obligation to provide up-to-date training that recognises business schools’ responsibility to help solve the challenges of a disruptive 21st century. We need agile, responsive and responsible leaders to deal with an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

Future leaders need to be able to appreciate the complexities of what it means to be human, as well as business’s role in sustaining an inhabitable planet. Management emphasis on efficiency and profit can no longer take precedence over human values.

Leaders who succeed in coming decades will be notable for their holistic thinking, global perspectives, international experience, multilingual capabilities, technological familiarity, entrepreneurial mindset, creativity and ability to deal productively with complexity and chaos.

Organisations in all sectors of society already say they cannot find the type of employees they need. So we must begin acting now to transform business schools. It is our job as educators to produce graduates who are critical thinkers and can thrive in a radically changing world, and who can shape it in positive ways.

Soni is associate director for research at the Graduate School of Business at the Management College of Southern Africa