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How educated do executives need to be?

Oct 19, 2007 Business Daily, Management

“…Educated people do not rely exclusively, or indeed even primarily, on the instruction they receive, but seek to satisfy their insatiable intellectual curiosity by their own means of self-improvement. Yet, in the business-class section of long flights to geographically and culturally remote places, typically the business passenger will be seen watching silly videos that require an IQ of a 12-year-old, rather than take advantage of these hours of imposed leisure to read and learn about the societies he will be visiting, thereby deepening his knowledge and broadening his horizons.”

Jean-Pierre Lehmann, Is European Education Fit For Purpose? (2007)

Jean-Pierre Lehmann, professor of international political economy at IMD, Lausanne, was scathing in this piece about the education and knowledge of the modern business executive. His article appeared in the European Business Forum, and he recounted how, in the business programmes that he teaches, he often puts 50 or so questions to his students (who are usually leading executives). The “globally curious and alert” person, said the professor, should be able to answer many of these questions; but the results are invariably bad.

The author is concerned that “In the highly complex and interconnected world of today, where everything – geopolitics, finance, security, theology, demographics – is connected to everything, a great deal more depth, knowledge and wisdom are, and will increasingly be, required.”

Lehmann identifies four attributes that the modern executive will need: business acumen; global knowledge; an ethical compass; and committed citizenship. To possess these attributes, business leaders must have not just knowledge, but wisdom.

Business acumen is taught in business schools; but how much do we all know of the key markets of the future: China, India, the Arab world? Do we understand the histories, philosophies, cultures and literature of these regions and their peoples? Why not – given that they will loom large in any businessperson’s future?

Equally, every business leader will be confronted with ethical dilemmas, and serious ones at that. How much has he or she understood about the ethical challenges handled by great leaders through the ages? Very little, one imagines; the modern ‘hands-on’ CEO’s method is usually to fly headlong into a situation, and work out what to do next while roasting in the fire. A little advance education about ethics, suggests the professor, might ease the pain.

Lehmann was addressing a European readership; here in Kenya, however, the problem is more acute if anything. The population at large lacks a reading culture, and our business leaders are often (sadly) no different. But flying into China to do business there with no background knowledge is foolhardy at best. This does not require sitting down to learn Mandarin; just a healthy appreciation of where the Chinese people have come from, and where they are going. And, as one avid reader told me recently, there is a great deal to be learned about corporate strategy from reading ‘War and Peace’!

Business is a big deal now, and ignorance is a dangerous state to be in. The person who understands the nuances of what’s going on, and who can place it in historical and economic context, may be more likely to walk away with the winning deal.

So don’t settle into your business class seat to watch cartoons and sitcoms for the next eight hours: Professor Lehmann may be sitting behind you…

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