I laughed as I read the final essay assignment last week: “What were your major overall conclusions from the Society and Enterprise module?” For the January cohort that has yet to experience it, “S&E” is HBS’s two-and-a-half day ‘immersion’ program that purports to varnish us with an understanding of how business interacts with government and civil society. One would have thought this to be an important experience, given that the mission of the Harvard Business School is “to develop outstanding business leaders who will contribute to the well-being of society”. My greatest take away from the Society and Enterprise module is that HBS has no genuine intention of fulfilling that mission.
The School has constructed an elaborate set of institutional and cultural conditions to stifle true social leadership; when it does arise, these conditions conspire to smother and sap it.
Institutionally, since the S&E module is both isolated from the “regular” curriculum and graded pass-fail, students treat it with a care bordering on disrespect. This was evident in most of our class discussions-long periods of blank silence, betraying the utter failure of a majority of class to read the cases. If the HBS mission does truly guide our educative experience, S&E ought not to exist. It should instead be integrated into every case that we study. In the same way that a broad definition of “strategy” seems to underlie and enlighten all of our subjects-from FRC (financial reporting strategy) to TOM (operational strategy) to Marketing (value-creation and capture strategy) to Finance (funding and financing strategy)-so too should a broad definition of social responsibility be brought to bear on all cases. Why else do we lead but to leave things better than we found them?
If HBS does not agree with this statement, it ought to revise its mission statement. I might suggest this: “We aspire to develop outstanding business leaders who will increase shareholder value.” In my view, this is a more honest articulation of the School’s mission. Ironically, our own community standards prescribe against the dramatic and insidious mismatch of the School’s mission and its actions. This is a business school; aiming to increase shareholder value is nothing to be ashamed of, even if it lacks the grandiose ambition of improving “the well-being of society.”
Culturally, HBS actively discourages social leadership. Professors seem to have no compunction being prescriptive about behavior when it comes to the tenets of rabid profit-seeking. Last term, one professor stated to the class that “Our jobs in life are to increase society’s wealth-we have to work on enlarging the pie. Enlarging the pie is what makes charity possible. If we didn’t do this, there would be no such thing as charity!” Frantically scribbling notes, several students took as gospel this Word of Professor-not realizing that there is perhaps a valid and opposing view. It is a paradox in the HBS culture-given our mission statement-that we would allow this type of prescriptive behavior-setting to occur (and this is merely one of myriad examples), while being so loose on socially-positive forms of behavioral prescription. The School obviously has values, and it obviously wishes to impart those values to its students. How odd then that it would choose values that seem antithetical, or at least benign, to its mission! I wonder whether S&E was a “transformational” experience for anyone. Does S&E merely preach to the converted? How many “future leaders” will actually change their behavior in the years ahead, as a result of what they learned in S&E? From wide discussions with classmates, the answer is a resounding “None.”
Imparting a transformational sense of social enterprise is not a two-day immersion. It is a two-year immersion, and it ought to begin by striking the word “social” from “social enterprise”. HBS’s spirit and philosophy require all enterprise to be socially beneficial to some extent.
Students need to develop three beliefs and skills. First, they must be convinced of the business benefits of social activism (this is something that LVDM did quite well). Even though it is a cynical message (that social responsibility increases a company’s long-term profitability), it is the right one to begin with for the HBS audience. Second, students must develop their own reasons to lead. These reasons are not merely to increase profitability and win the corner office of some private equity firm. Real reasons to seek leadership involve earning the opportunity to act on one’s deeply-held beliefs to contribute “to the well-being of society”. Definitions of “well-being” will obviously sometimes be in conflict, but what is important is that we act on them as leaders. Third, feeling the imperative to act, students must be given the tools with which to find, secure, and initiate opportunities for social action. Only then will HBS be able to state in good faith its mission. Until then, the words ring hollow, waiting for shameful disclosure.