Female postgraduate student reading the Financial Times

June 24, 2013, by Kelly Cookson

Business schools should be wary of producing MBA ‘heroes’

By Paul Kirkham, Nottingham University Business School

Producing MBA graduates who aim high and are committed to making a difference is a key function of any business school. What we must be increasingly careful to avoid, however, is the temptation to produce what we might call “heroes”.

Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, once remarked that the problem with heroes is what to do between phone booths. But there is another, rather more pressing difficulty: heroes are the stuff of epics – and epics are not sustainable.

This is because epics invariably have an ending. King Arthur sails off to Avalon. The sheriff rides off into the sunset. Ithaca is at peace once more. Once the final page has been turned, once the credits roll, it’s all over. This, we ought to recognise, does not sit comfortably with the modern world.

In recent years the pace of change has been so rapid that the average man or woman will have seen several major innovations rise, fall, die and in some cases be all but forgotten in stunningly short order. The gales of creative destruction, as Schumpeter called them, are blowing louder and faster than ever.

In other words, we live in an age of ceaseless transition – one in which innovation and entrepreneurship, the ability to adapt and adjust, should have infinitely more value than a supposedly “heroic” attitude rooted in fixed goals and short-term reward.

Determination vs ruthlessness

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that the aspiring business leaders of the future may well wish to cast themselves as heroes. After all, who doesn’t dream of wading into the fray, bucking the odds and emerging supremely victorious? Business schools should not suppress this tendency per se, as it is self-evidently not without positive qualities.

We should, though, clearly define its limits, just as we should distinguish where ambition ends and selfishness begins or where healthy determination tips into self-serving ruthlessness. Our principal aim should be to prepare students for the real world, not for a vaguely Apprentice-style fantasy in which there can be only one winner.

It is vital to acknowledge that students – and, in time, the organisations they go on to represent – are better served if they are encouraged to see themselves more as actors in a larger story that requires them to interact with a multiplicity of possibilities. Enduring success does not lie in ploughing a lone furrow towards some manner of brave but inherently egotistical finale: it lies in harnessing the energy and intellect of the most diverse networks we can conceive.

Masters of the universe?

Business schools should make this reality abundantly plain. Those that conspicuously promote the alternative scenario leave themselves open to the sort of criticism that arguably reached its apogee in Philip Delves Brougthon’s Ahead of the Curve, with its infamous condemnation of top MBAs who aspire to “master of the universe” status.

Indeed, Delves Broughton’s “jargon-spewing, values-destroying financiers” perhaps offer the most compelling illustration of why the “epic” approach is so ill-advised. If we accept the notion of “progress” faces constant challenge, that there is no calm after the storm, that the gales will never subside, we have a story without end – and a story thus shorn of the traditional denouement of heroic resolution.

As sociologist Robert Holton observed, abandoning the narrative structure of the epic leaves us with the incessant drama of the soap opera. This may sound unappealing, even alarming, but the inescapable truth is that soap operas are built to last: they are capable of enormous change during their lifetimes, as a result of which many of them are long-lived and profitable.

Innovation without fanfare

There are entrepreneurs and inventors who fit the epic role, but most innovation is carried out with little fanfare – and this in itself is a cause for confidence during periods of uncertainty.

Equally, there is room for epic and soap alike in the schedules, and the former may well forever enjoy a higher status in the eyes of some. But we would do well to remember it is the latter that has the staying power.

We can never have too many innovators. Too many heroes, on the other hand, we can more than likely live without.

Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity with Nottingham University Business School and co-deviser of the Ingenuity problem-solving process taught to students at the University’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

From an article published in the Financial Times published 29th April 2013.

Posted in Entrepreneurship educationInnovation