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The 21st Century MBA: Not Profitability Or Sustainability, But Both

The MBA is generally regarded as a graduate ticket to ride – a door-opener to board rooms, to referral networks and, for many, to the inner sanctum of our business/economic system.

Drawing on shared institutional wisdom, vast real-world academic research and transformative case histories, the degree has become a sort of lingua franca, a common foundation that both launches and unites business careers.

That’s certainly accurate, as far as it goes.

But from my perspective, as the chair of a robust MBA program at Woodbury University, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The traditional MBA needs a good, hard second look. We need to develop a vernacular and a curriculum for what I call “the sustainable MBA.”

Sustainable MBA

The sustainable MBA embodies a new vision to effectively address inequality, protect the planet and ensure well-being for all as part of our shared destiny.

Achieving these ends will require the concerted efforts of the business sector, governments, informed citizens, society at large, and, of course, educational institutions like my own.

My belief is that a focus on sustainability within an MBA framework can help harness what is good for students, good for society and good for the planet. That’s why this mindset should rightfully transcend any specific campus or institution.

The mission for business schools might well be something along the lines of “Cultivating Transformational Leaders for Sustainable Business.”

It means viewing business holistically through a triple lens: economy, equality and ecology.

My Path To Sustainability

The concept of the sustainable MBA emerged from my research on the value-added aspect of business organizations.

As I was getting into the thick of things, I kept bumping up against the notion of the highest purpose of business. What does a business organization really stand for? Profit-maximization or value-maximization?

The prospect of adding human value to the equation requires a paradigm shift, from being a consumer to becoming a contributor.

I was increasingly mindful of a business’s total footprint, not just its carbon footprint.

What is the total cost of running a business? What are the “externalities” of running that business — the physical, psychological, cultural, spiritual consequences?

These questions resulted in a book project called “Spirituality and Sustainability: New Horizons and Exemplary Approaches” (Springer, 2016).

On a personal level, I wanted to find out how one could tread lightly on the planet. How can we be sure to contribute more than what we are consuming?

These kinds of questions kept me awake at night.

It dawned on me that I needed to take a proactive stance around raising awareness relative to these issues among our business students. That in turn led to the development of our MBA program’s first-ever graduate course in Sustainability Management.

Sustainability At Woodbury

During the summer 2016, and again in summer 2017, we chose to walk the talk, through a project that explored the moral and spiritual basis of sustainability.

We created a “Seminar in Engaged Sustainability” that was open to Woodbury graduate students from Business, Architecture and Design. Throughout, the emphasis was on sustainability as a verb: that is, what specific actions could students pursue to “tread lightly on the planet?”

Our plan is to repeat the experiment again this coming summer.

Why Everyone Should Get Involved

Having now taught the course twice, a pattern has emerged: if we are to make the planet sustainable, we all have to contribute our share. We all have to become “engaged” in the business of sustainability.

The question is no longer to be (or not to be) sustainable.  

In the 21st Century, sustainability isn’t really a choice. It’s an existential fact. The only question is “how?”

We now know that the sustainability phone is off the hook, and that time is running out. We know that we have only one planet on which to live. What can we all do to ensure its shared well-being?

Businesses need to know this. Business students need to be aware of it. This is really a conversation about our ultimate, collective survival.

That is why MBA students and, for that matter, undergraduates, need to be exposed to this uber concept in a vital way and at several inflection points within the business curriculum.

In the MBA program at Woodbury, we seek to treat sustainability as a mindset, as a way of life.

The same applies with equal force to those who are just beginning to consider business education as an academic pursuit. Since today’s business students are tomorrow’s business leaders, they need to be fully aware of, and conversant with, key challenges facing business. These future business leaders need to be fully mindful of what really matters for the planet’s well-being.  

Our mantra at Woodbury University is to consistently emphasize the human side of doing business. We call it “adding humanity to the bottom line,” or just “conscious business.”

If we all play our cards right, conscious business will soon be a redundancy.