A little over a year ago, leaders from governments, campaign groups, youth movements, higher education and business travelled to Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

Although at the time there was considerable disappointment that government leaders made little headway, one agreement may with time be seen as an important milestone – the decision to develop a set of sustainable development goals.

These goals will guide policy and strategy among governments, the private sector and civil society over the next two decades. They are likely to include specific global targets in areas such as nutrition, education, gender equality, health, water, sanitation and energy and will have the potential to shape key markets for years to come.

A growing number of business leaders are recognising that the forces shaping today’s world require them to play a completely different kind of role. They grasp that running a successful business in the context of today’s global challenges requires working in partnership with unusual bedfellows. A new kind of collaborative leadership is emerging, one that recognises the potential value of such sustainable development goals and is eager to make them as ambitious as possible.

These changes have significant implications for higher education and business schools. Adopting these goals requires a different mindset and different skills, it requires business schools to teach a new kind of leadership.


At the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit in New York, more than 1,000 business leaders presented their proposals for maximising the contribution business could make to achieving the sustainable development goals. Among the core proposals was a call to business schools to reform curriculums to develop informed, committed and skilled leaders who can lead companies to more sustainable outcomes.

Changes are already taking place in the business education arena. Equis, for example, the accrediting arm of the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), has transformed its accreditation standard to place sustainability and responsibility at its core, and they are now as important as internationalisation and corporate partnerships. AACSB, another of the main accrediting bodies, has also taken steps in this direction. Businessweek, in its full-time MBA ranking, and ranking of business schools globally, already has sustainability on its agenda.

A partnership of universities and UN agencies – the Platform for Sustainability Performance in Education – has launched a reporting and assessment tool for improving sustainable performance in higher education institutions. And the UN has decided to broaden the focus of the second Decade of Education for Sustainable Development by including higher education and business schools when this initiative is launched in Nagoya, Japan, in 2014.

Good progress, but there remains much to be done. Business school deans need to grasp with passion and courage the leadership role they have to play in continuing to nurture curriculum change in their institutions for sustainability and social purpose.

But although change will come from within, business schools need help from others. Governments need to support this cultural change through the incentives embedded in funding and national assessment frameworks for higher education.

Business leaders need to give an even louder voice to their demands for a different kind of business graduate and make this clear in the way they recruit MBAs and purchase executive education.

And the other accrediting bodies and rankings providers – such as the Financial Times and The Economist – should follow Equis and Businessweek’s lead, by assessing how well schools are educating business leaders so that they can play a role in addressing today’s global challenges.

The right kind of management education will have a central role to play in achieving the sustainable development goals – it is a key building block in the architecture of a better world. Help us in business schools make the change we all want to see, to create the future we want.

Matthew Gitsham is director of the Centre for Business and Sustainability at Ashridge Business School, UK. Anthony Buono is professor of management and sociology and director of the Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility at Bentley University, US. Jean-Christophe Carteron is director of corporate social responsibility at Kedge Business School, France.

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