Super Hyper Harvard: On the need for darkness and doubt in teaching

Americans sometimes accuse us Brits of being arrogant cynics. It’s a stereotype I slipped into last week during the Harvard leadership course. Arrogance and cynicism are not good qualities and I normally avoid them. Upon reflection, I think it was an emotional response to the hyper-positivity of some Harvard lecturers. Despite climate change, persistent poverty, gross inequality, and corporate-mediated mass delusion, there ARE things to be positive about, but my positivity comes from a different place than a celebration of corporate success or glimpses of humanity in high-status leaders.

The upbeat tone was best conveyed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School. A famous management guru, Rosabeth is a walking visual metaphor generator, a skill honed over years of writing the kind of management texts that crop up in airport book shops. “Think outside the building” was her great way to summarise how the internet is enabling services to be delivered outside of the traditional institutions. “Health is outside the hospital, education outside the school.” I immediately thought “and banking will be outside the banks.” On creating innovation cultures in organisations, she said “Dream your own worst nightmare and invest in it.” All very dynamic, very hyper-Harvard.

Professor Kanter enthused about the role of multi-stakeholder partnerships to create needed change. Her energy was fab, and reminded me of the hopes I had for collaborative partnerships back in the mid-1990s when I co-wrote the first book on this topic with IFLAS Deputy Director, David Murphy. The way she presented these initiatives as a new thing seemed odd to me, given that partnering has been mainstream since 2002 when it was elevated by the UN summit in South Africa. Since then we have much evidence to show that such collaborations are not only sometimes useful but also difficult to manage, limited in their ability to create systemic change, and raise new concerns about corporate capture of political processes (e.g. see my book “Evolving Partnerships”). Maybe HBS audiences enjoy the good news more than awkward evidence. Yet is the pursuit of learning served by ‘airport lounge intellectuals’ who behave more like entertainers than educators?

Professor ‘Dutch’ Leonard explored a few examples of failure and coping with crisis, with some emphasis on aspects of character that are important no matter whether one is successful. There is much we can learn from allowing some darkness and doubt in our exploration of life.  The book “True North” by Bill George, which we were asked to read, places great emphasis on the idea that we can learn key lessons from “crucibles” in our lives, those moments when things go rather badly wrong. It’s the idea that from a crisis we can be transformed. Yet the crucibles are explored in the book as personal set-backs within an emerging narrative of a successful corporate career. Might crucibles challenge us even more?

Drawing upon experience in dealing with breast cancer, in “Smile or Die” Barbara Ehrenreich, wonderfully explains how the attachment to positive thinking can be harmful. In “When You’re Falling Dive” Mark Matousek explores the ego-transcendence that can occur through tremendous suffering. These aren’t crucibles that make one be a nicer CEO, but that create a shift in consciousness of self that means a corporate career can seem quite pointless.  In “Coming Back to Life” Joanna Macy explains the importance of connecting with and honouring our pain of connection with the world, from the suffering of humanity to that of other species, as a starting point from which to then evolve our ideas for action. The positivity that can arise from such analyses involves a rejection of mainstream notions of success.

As far as I’m aware, those authors are all American, and perhaps reflect a contrarian thread in US culture. So next time I’m accused of being a typical cynical Brit, I will remember to explain how I’m really positive about this wave of American existentialism!

In my own teaching I’ll continue to present multiple paradigms, whether positive or negative. This includes the paradigm that it is possible to incorporate social and environmental concerns into mainstream business and finance. It also includes a contrary paradigm, where we need a massive change in society and economy to achieve sustainable development. I’ll also offer the paradigm that we have been deluded by the corporate storytelling that dominates our lives through mass media and monetary systems, and encourage critical interrogation of a range of assumptions, as I did in my Inaugural Professorial lecture. Perhaps it is also time to explore a paradigm where it too late to avert catastrophic climate change, and discuss the implications. Because, for me, promoting emotional and intellectual dissonance can be a key aspect of education.

What do you think is the place of pain and doubt in the learning process?

“Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.” – Oscar Wilde