Business schools must start producing activists and stop enabling the prevailing elite

These are the kind of leaders we need to be producing, because they are the ones who will save our world and make it fit for all of us to live in

Daily Maverick, 24th October 2022

Business schools have a choice: they can be thermostats, regulating and maintaining the status quo and the temperature, which is going to cook us in any case. Or, they can be change accelerants, developing business leaders who are activists.

Nelson Mandela broke the law. So did Mahatma Gandhi, here and in India. We think of them as heroes today, which they are. You’ve probably heard of Wangari Maathai. You’ve definitely heard of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But you might not be so aware of Liu Xiaobo, Susan Brownell Anthony or Roxana Saberi.

Liu was a Chinese human rights activist; Anthony was an American suffragette; Saberi is a journalist. All six of them, just like Madiba and Gandhi, broke the law. They did it because the laws they were protesting against – and the repressive regimes which implemented them – were unjust, immoral and, as such, unsustainable.

Thanks to them, their courage, their commitment and their sacrifice, the world is a better place today. But is it really?

South Africa is politically free, though economically the most unequal society on the globe. Our world faces an imminent existential crisis: climate change, species extinction and, yes, even a new Ice Age or, worse, a planet that becomes increasingly uninhabitable, unequal and barren.

Economies have led us to this point, trading to the point of unsustainability – the quest for profit at the expense of the planet’s bottom line.

So, what is the role of business schools, in particular, in all of this?

Far too often, business schools are enablers of the prevailing elite. Not for nothing is the cynical observation: give a person a fish and you have to feed them for life; teach a person to fish and they feed themselves for life, and, if you teach MBA graduates to fish, profiting at all costs without care for the common good, they’ll overfish and sell the catch twice over for a profit until there are no fish left and our ecosystems face a rolling disaster.

Business schools can suffer from an implicit conservatism. It is the nature of their institutions and of their funders which they have been created to support by producing new cohorts of leaders who can do precisely what the economy expects them to do – make more returns for the shareholders.

As Milton Friedman once exhorted: “An entity’s greatest responsibility lies in the satisfaction of the shareholders.”

It is the wrong model. It’s not just unsustainable.

It also entrenches and tacitly supports pre-existing power blocs and dynamics that continue to effectively suppress change at a national, regional, continental and even global level.

It’s “carbon lock-in”, as the Stockholm Environment Institute describes it: “a process by which social, political and technical barriers to decarbonisation interact to create an inertia that favours the development of fossil fuels.”

The failure of a just transition is a new colonialism – development of the wealthier nations at the cost of the poorer.

Colonialism in Africa might have begun unravelling with Harold Macmillan’s Wind of Change speech in Cape Town in 1960, but it didn’t end in Pretoria in 1994 with Mandela’s inauguration.

It exists today because of the structure that was inherited; the power dynamics that continue in which only the demographics changed. It exists in South Africa’s Gini co-efficient, with all the attendant social problems that come with it.

The world is WEIRD: the Western “Educated”, Industrialised, Rich and “Democratic” countries make up only 12% of the globe, but account for maybe 80% of the voice. Everyone else gets to be marginalised or suppressed unless we fight it.

The WEIRD are unrepresentative of the rest of us and are also increasingly outliers in terms of the problems we face on this planet.

That’s weird and we have to change it – all of it – but we can only do so by creating a new breed of corporate activists, prepared to pick up the mantle of a Martin Luther King, a Parks, a Maathai, a Saberi, a Xiaobo or an Anthony. We also have to give them the conceptual models to do so.

One which is better for our current situation is Kate Raworth’s doughnut model – economies managed to be effectively bound by the inner ring of people’s needs and the outer ring of the Earth’s sustainability.

We dare not transgress the ecological ceiling – for obvious reasons, we need clean air, drinkable water, habitable climates. But equally, we cannot transgress the social foundation upon which civilisation, as we understand it, rests.

We dare not allow people to live without shelter and in hunger, with no access to water, healthcare or jobs.

Instead, we need to live within the doughnut ring, because when we do, we thrive.

We also have to develop new knowledge systems and not merely cut and paste the teachings of the WEIRD on to Africa and Asia. We have to recalibrate our relationship to the law, ethics and morals.

The law sets the lowest bar for conduct that is illegal if it doesn’t meet the threshold. Ethical behaviour is above this; a standard to which we should aspire if we want a better society, while morals prescribe how we should behave as individuals.

When South Africa suffered the ravages of State Capture – industrial-scale corruption aided and abetted by corporate collusion – it was because none of the three applied. Laws were broken with impunity; ethics were observed in the breach, while morals did not even make it to the debate.

Now we are faced with an even greater threat: it is a moral conundrum because the laws and society’s ethics are not enough to bring about change.

Business schools have a choice: they can be thermostats, regulating and maintaining the status quo and the temperature, which is going to cook us in any case.

Or, they can be change accelerants, evolving rules and policies. They can develop business leaders who are activists – who understand the context of the world they live in to ensure they conduct themselves in a way in which their behaviour creates a world we can all live in.

They can create business leaders who will demand to be held accountable by their staff and their communities as well as their shareholders. These leaders will insist that every decision that is taken is checked against the doughnut model, or a better derivative, to ensure that it breaches neither the inner nor the outer ring.

And sometimes, doing the right thing might be by doing the wrong thing.

We have to teach them that, too. As Martin Luther King reminds us, “there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all’.”

If you are a passenger on a ship that is headed for the rocks because the captain refuses to alter course, do you have the right, obligation even, to take control and save the ship? King would say yes, as would Mandela, Gandhi, Parks, Maathai, Anthony, Saberi and Xiaobo. Even if it meant going to jail – because they did.

These are the kind of leaders we need to be producing, because they are the ones who will save our world and make it fit for all of us to live in – even if we can’t see that right now.

That’s the challenge for business schools – all of them.

Professor Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, and chair of the Association of African Business Schools.


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