James Ferguson illustration
© James Ferguson

It started out like any ordinary business school lecture. Jack McCarthy, professor of organisational behaviour at Boston University’s School of Management, talked about the dynamics of high-performing teams using jazz musicians as an example. “In jazz, there are chords and notes but the performance requires improvisation: the musicians play off each other and play off the audience.

“That’s a metaphor for the work we do today in organisations. Yes, there are structures for how we get things done but to truly be creative and extend ourselves in business today, we need to build from and with others in the ways that jazz musicians do.”

Some students nodded along. Others yawned. Then the house lights went down and the gigantic screen on the stage rose to reveal a five-member jazz band. The student-led band played a lively 10-minute set that includes riffs on the classic “Take Five”, originally performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

“After the show, the musicians talked to the students about teamwork, creativity and shared leadership – what happens when different people step forward to lead [or do a solo] at different times,” says Prof McCarthy. “In listening to and watching creative people like jazz musicians, students saw these lessons more clearly, as they are essential elements of the way they work.”

The course, which Prof McCarthy has taught for six years, includes shows by a cappella singers, dance troupes and orchestras. It examines the team aspect of the performances as well as the content of the art. In one class, for instance, students watch a play by Shakespeare and then with the cast discuss the nature of trust, leadership and power.

As business schools worldwide try to cultivate more creative thinking and better teamwork in their MBA students, some are integrating performing and visual arts into their programmes. “There is absolutely increased interest in using the arts as a teaching tool,” says Robert Sullivan, chairman of the board of directors at the AACSB, the industry body.

“Schools and recruiters have a greater appreciation for the fact that it’s not just technical skills that are needed [to succeed in business]. You need to be creative. You need the ability to get your point across, to sell ideas and to get people to buy into them. This is true for any type of leader in any type of industry.”

Combining the arts with business education is not a new idea. Prof Sullivan, dean at Rady School of Management at UC San Diego, recalls that he introduced an acting course when he was dean at Carnegie Mellon’s business school more than two decades ago. “It was a class that helped students get comfortable in their skin. We wanted them to learn how to manage their nervousness, how to communicate and get people engaged.”

The extent to which schools have embraced the arts varies. Some, such as UC San Diego and Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, offer elective drama courses to help students develop their listening and public speaking abilities, while others such as BU have formed partnerships with campus arts groups for performance and inter­disciplinary learning opportunities. Meanwhile Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University and IEDC Bled School of Management blend instruction in management with aspects of art and music.

Whatever the approach, the schools have a similar ambition: to improve students’ powers of observation, help them understand the role that empathy plays in business and make them comfortable with the creative process.

“The methodologies of the artistic process – a comfort with ambiguity, an ability to execute a vision and to merge that vision with critique – are skills that go beyond the fine arts,” says Anthony Kolenic, executive director of the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities at the University of Michigan.

“[This is what’s driving] the movement toward integrating the arts into other fields of study.”

Nancy Adler, professor of organisational behaviour at McGill University, has incorporated art and drawing in her syllabus for almost 15 years. “Given the extreme complexity and rapidly changing economic environment, the prior ways of approaching management are not working very well,” she says.

“Our strongest draw is to try something else. I am not saying the arts are the cure-all …But there is an appreciation that more of the same is not going to work.”

Danica Purg founded IEDC Bled in Slovenia 28 years ago with a goal of creating a different kind of business school. “I wanted it to be a place where they [students] felt inspired,” says Prof Purg, who is now dean.

IEDC Bled is housed in three buildings that double as galleries. Its vast art collection includes more than 200 paintings and sculptures. “When you see a beautiful painting or a beautiful film you feel inspired,” says Prof Purg. The dean also appoints musicians in residence.

“We are probably the only business school in the world that employs a professional pianist,” she jokes.

Geoffrey Hitch teaches business acting at Tepper’s campus in Pittsburgh and at its branch campus in Qatar. The courses involve a series of theatrical exercises and written assignments designed to improve students’ public speaking. “The goal is to help them get rid of stage fright and give them techniques to assertively influence their audience,” he says.

Students are often either shy or did poorly in performance reviews in their jobs before business school because they are “not making the impression they think they’re making”, says Prof Hitch. “This course gives them a better sense of their public persona. They also learn how to listen empathetically – to care about what someone is saying even if they believe they’re mistaken.”

For the final assignment, Prof Hitch asks students to deliver a monologue or political speech. “I want to stretch [my students] and give them a challenge. And if by the end they can do the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, they can surely give a talk to clients.”

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