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An educator’s reflections on creating responsible MBA graduates

Business leaders sitting beside table smiling
[Source: Andrea Piacquadio; Pexel]
  • April 14 2021
10 minutes to read

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By Prof Arnold Smit, Associate Professor of Business in Society

It is graduation season at Stellenbosch University. Among the many graduates are the MBAs of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB). Sharing in their joy are family, friends, colleagues and educators who lived the, often gruelling, journey with them. Now is the time to congratulate and celebrate.

As an educator, I feel compelled to share some reflections on the achievement of an MBA degree in today’s world. Business schools have been under scrutiny for about two decades now for how their teaching produced graduates in Business Administration studies with a profit-first mentality, showing little appreciation for morality or social and environmental sustainability.

Such suspicion is not without merit and can unfortunately often be justified by several examples of corporate misconduct under the leadership of MBA graduates from famous business schools. There is, however, another side of the story – one that stresses the importance of responsible leadership and social impact in the education of business students.

Since the turn of the century, several business school deans and management education scholars started to engage actively with new questions about the purpose of business and the contribution that management education should make to the well-being of the world. Educating students in a world faced with sustainability challenges, much of which are admittedly aggravated by irresponsible business conduct, simply demanded fresh thinking about the intentions, contents and outcomes of management education. And so, responsible management education came into being, initially as a small start but nowadays the dominant force in global business school accreditation standards on all continents.

Business schools that subscribe to the PRME, are accredited by one or more of the global leading accreditation standards (AMBAAACSBEQUIS), and are members of the GRLIABIS and similar initiatives, have one ideal in common, namely, to see their graduates exercising responsible leadership and positive social impact wherever they might live and work.

“…responsible leaders are mindful of the impact of their decisions and behaviours on the environment, society and the economy.”

3 interrelated dimensions of responsible leadership

What is responsible leadership about? In essence, responsible leaders are mindful of the impact of their decisions and behaviours on the environment, society, and the economy. They realise that the long-term success of their organisations is dependent upon the well-being of the society, environment, and economy within which they live and work.

They are stewards of the human talent, ecosystem services and financial resources at their disposal and will act with ethical courage and sound judgement against behaviours that may jeopardise it. They are not interested in gathering followers but skilled in collaborating with stakeholders in pursuit of a future that is fair, just and sustainable for people and the planet.

We have become used to speaking about responsible leadership and its social impact on the self, relationships and systems, alternatively as Me, We and All of Us.

In practice, it means that such a leader exercises responsibility in the following terms:

  • Me: caring for what I believe, value, say and do, for whom I become and what I am known and am willing to stand up for
  • We: caring about relationships and the values and ideals we share with others, treating others with dignity and respect, creating environments where they can develop and flourish, and standing up for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and community
  • All of Us: being proactive about the impact of organisational decisions and behaviours on the environment, society and economy and caring for sustainability and prosperity in collaboration with stakeholders such as policymakers, industry regulators, suppliers, and even competitors.

“Responsible leaders rely on personal integrity, mutual trust and collective wisdom to lead their organisations in a world that becomes more complex by the day.”

Advancing change for a thriving world

Responsible leadership is, in essence, not about exercising power and attracting followers      but about creating relationships and making collaboration possible. Responsible leaders rely on personal integrity, mutual trust and collective wisdom to lead their organisations responsibly in a world that becomes more complex by the day.

With these thoughts in mind, I reflect on our MBAs and those of other business schools, graduating. Will they remain responsible? Will they pass every test of their integrity? Will they leave a legacy of positive and lasting social impact? Will they use the full spectrum of their Business Management degree to create value for a better world? Was our education sufficiently meaningful for them to live, relate and lead from a deep sense of purpose in the years to come?

“Responsible leadership is actualised in every contract, every appointment, every new product, every sale, every investment, and every decision.”

An affirmative answer to these questions is not a given. Responsible leadership is actualised in every contract, every appointment, every new product, every sale, every investment, and every decision. Those who sustain this commitment affirm that the new narrative of business as a force for good in the world is real. That management education is indeed capable of shaping responsible leaders and stewards of society.

One of the key differentiators of our MBA degree is the Leadership Module which focuses on responsible leadership and allows you to develop your own authentic leadership style.

Learn more about our Business Administration courses today.

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