Linking Leadership and the Liberal Arts

Businesses are seeking leaders who can communicate well, make sense of complex issues, and learn from historical and cultural contexts—all skills that lie at the heart of what liberal arts disciplines strive to teach.
Illustration of book set on computer keyboard with science and liberal arts icons floating out from top

In the early 1960s, an executive at a major record label auditioned a rock group for two hours, before telling the musicians’ manager, “We don’t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out; four-piece groups with guitars particularly are finished.” That record label was Decca Records; that group was The Beatles. The executive’s lack of knowledge about the public’s changing musical tastes resulted in the worst business decision of Decca’s history.

This ill-informed decision affected just one organization, but some bad business decisions are significantly more far-reaching. Just look at what happened when leaders in the U.S. mortgage industry embraced subprime lending practices—a decision that led to the housing bubble that eventually burst in 2008. Their lack of foresight sparked the Great Recession and had disastrous economic consequences not just in the U.S., but in regional economies around the world.

The decisions that business leaders make, often behind the closed doors of boardrooms, can influence people’s lives in many ways, from whether they qualify for loans to how they educate their children to whether they have access to affordable healthcare. Given what’s at stake, it’s no surprise that businesses want leaders who are equipped to avoid egregious errors in judgment. They want leaders who can make decisions that positively affect all stakeholders, from employees to customers to society at large, and whose worldviews go far beyond stock prices and profitability. The most successful leaders are well aware of the historical contexts and changing cultural attitudes that affect their decisions; they have the ability to communicate effectively and make sense of complex issues.

In other words, great leaders have skill sets that show all of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. That’s why, to serve business and society in today’s evolving world, business schools cannot afford to exclude the liberal arts from their curricula.

Beyond Business Basics

Some educators go so far as to suggest that liberal arts colleges are the most appropriate institutions for training future employees and managers. Take two books published in 2017: You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education by George Anders and Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees by Russell Stross. An August 21, 2017, review of both books in The New York Times highlights the authors’ arguments that businesses, particularly those in the tech sector, want to hire employees who are “able to communicate effectively, read subtle social and emotional cues, make persuasive arguments, adapt quickly to fluid environments, interpret new forms of information while translating them into a compelling narrative, and anticipate obstacles and opportunities before they arise.” These, of course, are skills heavily emphasized in the study of art, literature, history, philosophy, and the social and physical sciences.

Historically, however, business schools have not incorporated these topics into their curricula, opting to heavily weight their undergraduate programs toward subjects such as management, sales, and finance. For the most part, business schools have stuck to teaching students “how to do business,” says Jim Otteson, executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

That has left an opening in the market for an increasing number of liberal arts institutions to offer their own bachelor’s programs in business. For example, in my home state of Pennsylvania alone, I can point to the example of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, which just opened its College of Management in July 2017; its business curriculum combines technical skills and deep intellectual exploration. Then there’s the department of management and marketing at Grove City College, which integrates the liberal arts into business studies in order to prepare ethical leaders equipped with both technical and theoretical business skills.

Luckily, we also are seeing more business schools making more room for the liberal arts in their programs. Students at New York University’s Stern School of Business can take up to half of their courses in the College of Arts & Science. Their liberal arts study reinforces what they learn in a set of required bigger-picture courses called the Social Impact Core. In this program, students are steeped in the issues of ethics, social responsibility, and environmental concerns.

In 2014, the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor unveiled its MERGE program, short for Multidisciplinary Exploration and Rigorous Guided Education. Rather than begin with the typical survey course that covers the basics of economics, finance, operations, and marketing, some business majors at Ross now take an introductory course called Business and Leaders: The Positive Differences. The point of MERGE “is for students to explore business’ proper place in society, as well as what role they might want to play,” says Alison Davis-Blake, former dean of the Ross School. Davis-Blake is now president of Bentley University, whose entire curriculum is focused on teaching business education with a liberal arts foundation.

These examples suggest that we are entering a new era in which business education and liberal arts education are not viewed as mutually exclusive. Rather, they are symbiotic partners—two parts of a more comprehensive education.

‘The Courage to Keep Dreaming’

Educators who might still be questioning whether the liberal arts belong in business schools need only look at the many examples of successful business leaders with liberal arts backgrounds. Consider Howard Schultz, who earned a liberal arts degree before joining a Swedish drip coffee maker. There, he trained in the sales and marketing program and discovered his passion for business communications. That experience led him to eventually purchase and become the CEO of Starbucks, one of the world’s most iconic coffee companies. Schultz says that his liberal arts degree gave him the “the courage to keep dreaming.”

Then there’s Andrea Jung, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English. She joined a marketing trainee program at Bloomingdale’s department store in the 1980s, and it was there that she abandoned her plans to become a journalist, instead diving into the women’s apparel, accessories, and cosmetics industries. Her liberal arts background gave her the skills she needed to advance in the field until 1999, when she was named CEO of Avon, a US$10 billion global corporation.

Michael Eisner earned his liberal arts degree in English literature and theater. A few months after graduation in late 1964, he took a position as a clerk at the National Broadcasting Corporation, where he logged how many times commercials appeared on air. From that modest role, he advanced to higher positions at both the American Broadcasting Company and Paramount Pictures, before becoming CEO for The Walt Disney Company in 1984.

In interviews, Eisner says that his liberal arts background was a “perfect fit” for a career in business. In 1998, an article in The New York Times described Eisner as “unusual among entertainment moguls because he has had both creative and corporate experience. He knows how you put a show together and avoid going broke doing it.”

Teaching a Multifaceted Discipline

At Allegheny College, a liberal arts institution in Meadville, Pennsylvania, we recently launched our own undergraduate business major. We made the move after a collegewide task force examined the market and determined that graduates with business acumen and liberal arts sensibilities were in high demand. Not only did many of our applicants indicate a desire to major in business, but prospective employers and alumni told us they wanted to hire graduates with both business and liberal arts training. We found wide consensus that businesspeople today should be proficient in soft skills such as oral and written communication, teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking. In response to these findings, our economics department drafted a proposal for the new major, which faculty overwhelmingly approved in December 2017. We offered the major for the first time in the fall of 2018–2019.

Because our college has a strong underpinning in economics, that discipline forms the core of our business curriculum. We deliver our business courses in conjunction with opportunities coordinated by our Center for Business and Economics (CBE). These opportunities include internships, study tours of businesses in a variety of cities, executive panel discussions, a startup competition, and a lunchtime learning series featuring talks by alumni. In addition, students selected for our CBE Fellows program assist with the center’s activities throughout the year.

We incorporate the practitioner point of view via our Board of Visitors—Allegheny alumni who help steer the CBE’s programming and activities. Our executive-in-residence program invites executives to spend three days teaching classes, mentoring students, and hosting lunches and dinners for students and other executives. And our entrepreneur-in-residence program brings in a former CEO of an entrepreneurial business to serve on the faculty.

We believe a liberal arts institution such as Allegheny is the perfect environment to teach business, because its integrative approach suits the multifaceted nature of the discipline. Business not only encompasses fields such as economics, organizational behavior, finance, management, accounting, human resources, marketing, and entrepreneurship; it also requires students to learn to be strong decision makers, creative problem solvers, effective managers, and nimble leaders who understand the nature of competition and appreciate the importance of ethical conduct and sustainability.

As educators, we want to ensure our graduates have enough foresight not to make the same mistake as the executive at Decca. But we have a much grander social responsibility: to teach students to appreciate the impact their future decisions could have on people’s lives. By integrating business with the liberal arts, we can better prepare them to live up to their civic, social, ethical, environmental, and fiscal responsibilities as leaders in the world.


Headshot of Chris Allison, entrepreneur-in-residence at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.Chris Allison is the entrepreneur-in-residence at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where he teaches finance, entrepreneurship, and business economics. He also serves as co-director of the college’s Center for Business & Economics.