Teaching Students to Be Empathetic Leaders in a Divided World

Business schools must cultivate open-minded and innovative leaders who will support a more sustainable society.
Teaching Students to Be Empathetic Leaders in a Divided World

IN DECEMBER 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik died after killing 14 people and injuring 22 others in an attempted bombing at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. That's about 60 miles from Burbank, where my school, Woodbury University, is located. But in the news of the world, this was hardly an isolated incident.

By mid-September 2018, Wikipedia had recorded more than 1,200 violent acts classified as "terrorist incidents" that had occurred around the world from Afghanistan to Colombia and from Somalia to Israel--since the beginning of the year. That's an average of just over 4.5 radical acts every day under this classification alone.

The situation with hate-based crimes is just as grim. On February 14, 2018, former student Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and staff members and injuring 17 others. In May 2018, The Washington Post reported that hate crimes had risen for four straight years in major U.S. cities, with the largest jump in San Jose, California. This had resulted in a 132 percent increase in such crimes over figures from 2016. Wikipedia's overview of registered hate crimes in the U.S. between 2008 and 2012 shows more than 34,000 were conducted against people of all kinds, including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, atheists, and LGBT individuals.

These statistics unequivocally show the destruction that can be caused by someone with a closed mind. More than a half century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically stated, "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore says bluntly, "Ignorance leads to fear; fear leads to hate."

Most business leaders and educators believe that we live in an era when innovation, design thinking, and radical change are the keys to business success. But I think it's even more important to train our students to become leaders who do not fall prey to the ignorance and tribalism that threaten our planet's future. Any school that teaches leadership must consider how to counter such destructive mindsets. I believe the way to do this is to infuse business education with values like integrity, transparency, and sustainability and to subtly instill in our students the largely unteachable values of empathy, consciousness, and appreciation for diversity.

All of our students come to us having absorbed impulses from parents, peers, and the societies to which they have been exposed, and some of those impulses will be marked by ignorance and fear. Business schools must deliberately challenge those mindsets by causing students to question their assumptions, internally digest new ideas, and reformat their existing mental models.

It’s important to train our students to become leaders who do not fall prey to the ignorance and tribalism that threaten our planet’s future.

How can we do this? One way is through positive role modeling, especially when it comes to goals such as promoting diversity. While we might discuss diversity appreciation in our management courses, students are not likely to absorb the lessons unless we "walk the talk" by welcoming diverse students, staff, and faculty. At Woodbury University School of Business, our 15 full-time faculty members represent 11 nations, so students see that we have an expansive view of inclusion, diversity appreciation, and mutual respect. The diverse composition of our school helps attract students from a wide range of ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, political ideologies, geographical locations, and generational backgrounds.

Another way to open closed minds is to focus on sustainable thinking, with an emphasis on making a positive difference in the community. At our school, we do this in part through two required courses in both the BBA and the MBA programs. In one course, we allow students to identify a "moral responsibility" subject about which they feel passionate, whether that subject is homelessness, elder care, youth care, animal care, poverty alleviation, or veteran support. Then, student teams research the topic, connect with existing organizations that address the issue, and volunteer their time and effort. Finally, they present information about their experiences to their peers. The other course features a consultancy at its core, but it is implemented from a socially responsible stance. Through these types of engaged studies, students shift their paradigms and expand their emotional horizons.

At Woodbury, we also work to change mindsets by emphasizing mindful performance-that is, helping students understand that they must always be mindful of the effects of their actions, whether they are maintaining their online presence or following through on everyday decisions. At both the BBA and MBA levels, we teach students to combine conscious decision making with innovative thinking. We want to instill in our students the understanding that leadership starts with the self, because they cannot lead others if they don't guide themselves properly.

But there are other ways that schools can challenge students' established mindsets. For instance, we can subscribe to an expanded definition of entrepreneurship. An entrepreneurial mindset isn't valuable just as a means of spurring business creation. It also encourages people to think in ways that are "positively divergent," to germinate new solutions to existing problems. When we teach students to think entrepreneurially, we teach them to let go of old habits and perceptions and be receptive to new thoughts and beliefs.

We also can help students understand the necessity for change, teaching them that it should be consciously motivated by the need to create something that's positive or discontinue something that's destructive.

Another crucial way we can help students break away from closed mindsets is to expose them to the real world through internships and apprenticeships. Team-based involvement in corporate and social projects will broaden students' horizons and sharpen their sensitivity to social issues, which can lead to paradigm changes.

Other types of learning also develop empathy in students and raise their consciousness about social issues. For instance, role-play exercises provoke reflection. We use the classic eulogy exercise to force students to think about the actions for which they want to be remembered-and to help them realize they want to do more with their lives than merely strive for material goods.

At the end of their course of study, business students ought to be crystal clear about the purpose of business education: to cultivate innovative leaders for a sustainable society. Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said, "Defeating racism, tribalism, intolerance, and all forms of discrimination will liberate us all, victim and perpetrator alike." Business schools must prepare the graduates who will lead the way.

Joan Marques is dean of the School of Business at Woodbury University in Burbank, California.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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