Do Business Schools Breed Arrogance? http://t.co/kglUeVzKfW— Santiago Iniguez (@SantiagoIniguez) March 17, 2014
Business schools are often blamed for inculcating arrogance in their graduates. “Humility is not a word often pegged onto MBAs,” once wrote Henry Mintzberg. This feeling of belonging to an elitist business school is normally cultivated in three phases: First, during the admission and interview process there is constant emphasis on how the school only selects the best. Second, during the program, the attachment to a selected group –“la crème de la crème”- is reinforced. Third, before and after graduation, students are encouraged to only look for the top-paid jobs, those at the summit of their professional tree, or those with high status. Such a sentiment is handed down from generation to generation both by the school’s management, as well as by graduates.
Is this something natural and unavoidable? I believe that we, as management educators, should do our best to dismiss narcissist and arrogant graduates. That said, it must also be accepted that many institutions, including higher education ones, are based on the idea of meritocracy, i.e., the recognition and promotion of the best individuals with the highest level of skills. Admission to school, grants, assessment of work, and selection for jobs are all based on the concept of meritocracy.
There are procedures to avoid excessive elitism, such as positive discrimination or the use of alternative methods to measure a person’s qualities, or changing the rules of our institutions, but these are generally criticsed as counterproductive and undesirable. Of course, business schools are far from being the only institutions guilty of practicing elitism; it is a cultural characteristic of all well-regarded educational institutions. Similarly, candidates, their families, and all stakeholders tend to want to belong to elite organizations.
Given that the concept of meritocracy is intrinsic to the functioning of many social institutions, the objective of educators, and of business schools in particular, would be better focused on how to instill in students a real sense of confidence and self-recognition, along with a commitment to society and supported by the virtue of modesty. The challenge for educators and students is how to balance the self-assurance needed to lead people and to take decisions with the modesty required to avoid over-confidence and loosing touch with reality.
I tend to kick off the inaugural speech I give to MBA students at my school with the same words Socrates used when addressing new students: “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.” I then add that they may feel a little bemused, since MBA students have normally a pretty high opinion of themselves, have followed a competitive selection system, and all have respectable professional experience.
But I believe that this is the proper way to welcome a group of motivated students who are starting a very challenging learning experience and who have invested an important amount of their time and their resources. To focus on cultivating their self-esteem as based on a sense of belonging to an elite would be misleading.
Allow me to encourage you to repeat to yourself, as frequently as needed, the Socratic magic words: “I know nothing”.
(This post is adapted from my book TheLearningCurveBook.com)