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Five senior people are holding a postmortem examination on a critical personnel appointment. They had unanimously chosen this candidate, but it had been a spectacular and expensive mistake.
After a candid exchange of views it is discovered that no one had believed it was the right appointment at the time but, because the chief executive had not voiced his doubts, no one had dared mention their own reservations and the group had followed a course of action that no one really wanted to take.
Professional and technical expertise as taught in business schools is undeniably important, but there is increasing recognition that the most critical skills for leadership in business and finance are certain generic thinking skills – chief among them the capacity for accurate analysis and reliable decision-making.
There is however, a science of the mind that focuses the student’s attention on the quality of thinking itself. Rigorous study in philosophy and theology is a form of training par excellence that equips students and society’s future employees with the skills, knowledge and experience to examine and understand the workings of the mind, the foundations of thought and the sources of knowledge. What was once a rarefied discipline – understanding the nature of thinking and how to improve it – is now seen as central to business concerns and organ- isational performance.
Business schools are now well-provisioned in the study of a discipline that was once the preserve of philosophy and religion: ethics.
It might be too big a leap, however, to expect the providers of MBAs to reflect on the study of knowledge, or symbolic logic, along with other core areas of the philosophy curriculum. All the more reason then for business schools or university departments to reach out to colleagues with expertise, creating strategic partnerships with other departments or other colleges for the formation of the minds of future business leaders. Such partnerships might have something more to offer.
Michael Porter has created a stir by writing in the Harvard Business Review that a capitalism “under siege” must think about “creating shared value”.
CSV is what will spark the next generation of innovation and Porter is not so much creating a current as riding a growing wave. Value that means more than maximising profit is the dominant theme of the broader public conversation that has been building since 2008.
However, deeper reflection is needed on what value and values might truly be and how we unite around values. Products and markets might require shared values; but they cannot create them, nor will communities unite around them. Sustainable finance presupposes sustainable communities. But while sustainable finance is sexy and attracting some of the most innovative thinkers, who is leading the thinking on how to create sustainable communities?
Theology, philosophy and the study of religions put at their centre the understanding of values and value, the importance of communities and their traditions and identity.
Any attempt to engage in CSV is potentially doomed to failure if it does not understand the different processes and aims of value creation among communities. And it will not survive if it lacks the skills to engage with diverse communities to carry this forward.
More than any other, the disciplines of theology and philosophy equip students to understand diversity, often at its most conflict-ridden points. From the point of view of risk mitigation, organisations can no longer afford to be “illiterate” in matters of religious, ethnic and other forms of diversity. More broadly, as organisations have or seek a global reach, they need to be “fluent” in religious and ethnic diversity, able to feel at home in culturally diverse situations.
A new kind of professional competency will be expected in future; a partnership between business education, philosophy and the study of religions, communities and cultures is the best suited to cultivate it.
Prof Gwen Griffith-Dickson is vice-president – academic at Heythrop College, University of London and director, Lokahi Foundation.