How the Liberal Arts are Helping MBAs Expand Their Minds

Why are top business schools turning to the liberal arts to help their MBA students?

Typically, no one expects MBAs to perform in a theater or tell a story like a campfire is raging. They are meant to concern themselves with data and the bottom line. People expect them to bring logic and a level head to the office. Right?

As it turns out, however, employers want them to expand their horizons, too. After all, they need leaders who are great communicators, who can manage people replete with emotions, passions, and goals. Not to mention the fact that MBAs must tackle complex problems that require critical and creative thinking. And today you have to do all this across continents, oceans, languages, and cultures.

Thus, some business schools find themselves dabbling in the liberal arts. They offer electives that give aspiring business leaders the chance to give their right brain a bit of a workout. 

“MBAs over-exercise their left brain. You can’t solve problems this way,” says Daena Giardella, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where she teaches improvisational theater to MBA students. “This is a laboratory of trial and error. What habits get in the way of my performance? Do I run away from conflict? Do I get defensive?” 

There is a huge range of interesting opportunities for business students to study the liberal arts:

 

MIT Sloan – Improvisational Theater for Business Students

In this course, Giardella has students study improvisational acting as a means of learning more about themselves and how they relate to other people. Ultimately, the course presents leadership as a collaboration. In acting out scenes, they learn how to make the other person look good, which is rule no. 1 of improvisation, says Giardella.

At times, they must become more approachable or more vulnerable. In one lesson, students practice an inner monologue and then freeze. Another student has to decide what the person is now thinking. In another, a student describes an annoying characteristic of someone in the workplace and must play that role. Then, another person has to take on the persona while the original student tries to influence him or her.

“Improvisation is an MRI of what really happens in human instincts when faced with conflicts, risks, or everyday interactions,” says Giardella. The feedback, when in an improvisation course at business schools, comes to students in a trusting space, where people offer responses to help each other grow, she adds.

 

Harvard Business School – The Moral Leader

Professors Joseph L Badaracco and Sandra J Sucher, at Harvard Business School, ask students to trade in case studies for literature, primarily novels. The readings range from novels to short stories and span centuries. They include contemporary works, ancient Greek plays, and Shakespeare. In one version of the course, the students read biographies, too. The original Moral Leader class launched 30 years ago.

“Novels and stories are renderings of life; they cannot only keep us company, but admonish, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course,” says Robert Coles of the Harvard School of Education, who created the original version of the course, quoted in the course catalog. “They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers – offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we may make soundings." 

 

University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business – Storytelling for Leadership

Lecturer Arina Isaacson, who is a communications consultant and executive coach, encourages students at Berkeley Haas School of Business to share their personal stories. The course breaks down the process into story structure, story content, and story delivery. First, students gather their thoughts and organize the information to convey who they are and what experiences have shaped them. Next, they define their intent and theme. Finally, they work on connecting with the audience through voice, breath, and mental centeredness.

“Storytelling in front of an audience encourages authentic moments.  For leaders, whose job it is to manage change, storytelling facilitates learning, generates enthusiasm, teamwork, and knowledge-sharing and ultimately leads to building trust and connection,” according to the Haas website. “It is an effective way to communicate to various stakeholders at every level of an organization.  This session provides strategies, skills, and tools for connecting to and speaking from the place of your rich life experiences and true, natural voice.”

 

University of Toronto Rotman School of Management – Canadian Business History in a Global Context

Joe Martin, director of Canadian business and financial history at Rotman, introduced this course in 2005 because he wanted to show students the impact of public policy decisions and, through case studies, demonstrate that, “business does not exist in a vacuum.”

Students hear an overview of an epoch, receive a guest speaker who emphasizes the liberal arts aspect of the course, and analyze case studies for each era. 

“The purpose of liberal arts is to make you think,” says Martin. “As one of my former students said to this year's class, ‘to think broadly and strategically.’ That is more important when you are a CEO than knowing present value.” 

Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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