Home truths

Why one dean’s unorthodox parents had intriguing lessons for us all. By William Boulding

Listen to this article


We live in a world that is connected, interdependent and full of disruption. It is simultaneously fraught with peril and promise. More than ever, business is a single connecting thread, or entry point, to global challenges and opportunities. Given this, business schools must accept the responsibility of producing graduates who will provide the consequential leadership the world needs.

As I reflect on this responsibility, I find myself most heavily influenced by an unlikely source: my parents. I say unlikely, because Kenneth and Elise Boulding had zero interest in business. Both were accomplished academics – my father an economist, my mother a sociologist – and committed social activists, but it is their private examples that influence me today.

Perhaps the biggest lesson they imparted was the importance of a sense of purpose and making a difference in the lives of others. When Nazi Germany invaded her native Norway, my mother’s sense of purpose was crystallised. As noted in her New York Times obituary, she devoted her life to unlocking the “penchant for peaceable behaviour” she felt existed in us all. My father was more complicated. His New York Times obituary described him as a “much-honoured but unorthodox economist, philosopher and poet”. In our final conversation before his death he explained his sense of purpose with utter simplicity: the world would go from good to better or from bad to worse; his life’s work was to maximise the likelihood of a good outcome.

Of course, this is a tremendously complex task and I learnt from my parents the importance of collaboration in achieving it. As we engage with people, organisations and societies with differing values, cultures and institutional arrangements, these differences lead to potential, or actual, conflict. Do we then withdraw, believing we face irreconcilable differences, or do we engage in the hope that we can build bridges? My parents did not believe in irreconcilable differences, thinking that increased, multipoint contact led to finding shared interests. Emotionally, they focused on love rather than hate and attempted to find the good in all. Arguing was fine as long as engagement continued and, eventually, co-operation and collaboration.

My father focused on unarticulated trade-offs and consequences. It was never enough that an argument be against something; he always asked: “What are you for that will make things better?” Being for something in a simplistic sense was never good enough if one had not thought through unintended consequences. He revelled in complexity and ridiculed simplistic “for” and “against” positions rooted in self interest.

My parents’ next lesson was that while they sought to engage and connect, they were willing to be creatively disruptive forces and to rethink traditional boundaries. My father emigrated from the UK to the US as a young man because he wanted his ideas evaluated on merit rather than on social standing or seniority. He always pushed, humorously, any group towards disruptive innovation. He felt economics missed the richness of other perspectives in driving human behaviour and systems. “Mathematics brought rigor [sic] to economics. Unfortunately, it also brought mortis,” he said. My mother returned to school for her PhD aged 45 at a time when there were few working mothers.

Finally, both identified as global citizens. Because of interdependence, they recognised we can either cause problems for each other or create solutions and opportunities. My father, among others, coined the term “spaceship earth” to get people to focus on the reality that all of us have a shared future drawing from the same resources. Thinking of this shared future eliminates barriers that sometimes get in the way of innovative problem solving.

I think about my parents’ example and what students and business leaders might learn from it: have a sense of purpose to make a difference in the lives of others; engage across barriers to create collaboration and innovation; do not take positions on issues through the lens of simplistic and narrow self-interest, and be a global citizen. These are the ingredients of consequential leadership that will help drive positive changes in our interdependent world.

William Boulding is the dean at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina

View profiles of top deans at www.ft.com/deans

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.