Opinionista Jon Foster-Pedley 3 March 2011

Not speechless, but voiceless

Akin to the distinction between merely hearing and actively listening, the faculty of speech and the ability to give voice to one’s considered and eloquently conveyed opinions should not be confused. The very essence of business schools is to teach students to think deeply, formulate views and opinions and then, with courage, conviction and compassion, give voice to those opinions.

What is the role of a business school when it comes to initiating or participating in public debate and dialogue about the pressing issues that challenge our young society? Should the business schools themselves take a stand on key issues? Or should they only offer a platform on which students and guests can debate such things?

I believe not only should business schools help people think divergently and see multiple, complex perspectives, but we should also encourage them to think convergently, to develop interpretations and clear insights based on quality analysis and rich systemic “sense-making”. But we should go further. We should also lead them in the imperfect and sometimes scary art of taking a position and having a point of view.  Which, when expressed and shared publically, becomes an opinion.

Opinions have value. I would argue they are a high end-point of debate and learning, leading to action, or to avoiding knee-jerk reactions. Opinions are hard. They expose one to public scrutiny and challenge, be it well-informed and well-intentioned or prejudiced and self-interested. After all we don’t know if our opinions are true or false. We believe they are, as I believe my opinion here is.  The art of advocacy is that of both expressing our opinions and of revealing the reasoning by which we reached them, so that others may understand and if necessary challenge us, to enrich our learning. Reaching an opinion requires a sense of timing, neither prematurely ill-considered nor too late, or leading to analysis paralysis. Opinions pin one’s colours to the mast. They can move people from monkish, cerebral detachment to the imperfect, messy world of management and action; the world where positive differences are made to real people’s lives in real time.

I wrote earlier that I believe “there is a deafening silence from the halls of business academe on issues like job creation, the role of trade unions, corruption, the structure of state-owned enterprises, the strength of the rand, import- and export-parity pricing, labour-broking, and even the very role of business in a developmental state. There are probably 15 or 20 more burning problems, desperate for well-considered solutions and well-argued systemic perspectives that could be added, but whatever the correct number, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single news release on any of them from the leader of a top South African business school. We are blessed with some exceptional business schools in South Africa, but why so strangely mute?” 

It seems to me that we are not speechless, for we speak, debate and engage in dialogue with ourselves and in public conferences with energy, skill and dedication. But we are voiceless, in taking a public position to challenge poor governance, poor ethics or even our own role. Or at best, murmuring. And at a time when we can see the power of voice daily in the turmoil of Arab states as masses of individuals find a voice and act together against forms of government they judge tyrannical. 

Is it deliberate or merely an oversight? Perhaps the business schools themselves are simply a reflection of a business community that is frequently criticised for failing to speak out or take a stand. It’s hard to believe that it’s an oversight, given the proud history of universities like Wits and UCT in the struggle against apartheid. There was no doubt at all in those dark days that a university was obliged to take a moral stand. So what’s changed now? Many of the issues confronting us today, like the fight against corruption, the sub-prime crisis, redressing the past and constructing quality education for all are also rooted in morality and are reflective of quality of character. “When the profit motive is unshackled from the purpose motive, bad things happen” says Dan Pink, author of “Drive”.

I agree with the opinion of Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School: “Business is an extraordinary force for good”. MBAs hold positions of great power, having huge impact on society. So there is a need to teach leaders to have public voices to advocate the path of good and challenge misuses of power.  To teach this is not peripheral to the role of a business school, but at the heart of it. 

I agree, too, with the opinion of Joel Podolny, ex-Harvard and Stanford professor, former dean of Yale School of Management and now dean of Apple University: “Until business schools make public gestures of disapproval (of unethical behaviour), society will never fully trust the MBA again”.

I do believe, as I mentioned in a previous article, that it is important to “create in our business schools the kind of atmosphere that flourished originally in universities. These were places of rhetoric and inquiry, debate and stimulation. Where brains were refreshed and encouraged to challenge and gain understanding via the process. Education is about lighting fires, not filling vessels.”

We know we need hard work, rigorous intellect and good coordination to do well. These are foundations of excellence. But what great things can happen when to these are added, initiative, imagination and passion? It’s easy to imagine that being passionate means switching off intellectual and academic rigour. It doesn’t. Passion and intellect can dance together, they are not an either/or race. Much has been written by business academics about the role played by passion in the workplace. It’s what makes getting up and arriving at work a pleasure, not a chore. It’s what fuels visionaries. It’s what turns entrepreneurs into corporate titans. But do we have the passion in our business schools in our response to the problems and challenges of our society? And if the schools themselves are not passionate, and passionately prepared to take a stand, how can we expect our students to follow suit?

Silence is a vacuum that will be filled by other people’s voices and ideas. It’s time for and it’s our duty to our business schools to regain their voices. DM

Jon Foster-Pedley is dean of the Henley Business School, South Africa


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