We need leaders and managers who have the skills and moral compass to build a just world

BY Kosheek Sewchurran
The UCT Graduate School of business is gaining international recognition for leading the way towards a better kind of business education.
As a business school in an emerging market, the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) is perhaps more exposed to complexity and flux – but in a volatile and uncertain world, our expertise in navigating this is increasingly being recognised.
The school was recently ranked 47th in the world, and the best in Africa, for its MBA specialising in Executive Management (EMBA) according to the Financial Times (FT) EMBA Rankings for 2019. Our EMBA has now been ranked by two organisations (the other being Quacquarelli Symonds) as the best EMBA in Africa and is the first African programme to be ranked in the top 50 worldwide. This ranking is a significant endorsement for the innovative work we are doing here in Africa to find better ways to produce ethical, morally aware and empathetic leaders capable of leading with impact in the 21st Century.
The EMBA is one of the fastest growing postgraduate degrees at UCT and is known for its focus on the practice of management and leadership rather than on traditional training in business functions.
Our point of departure has been that managing and leading is an embodied experience and can be overwhelming. Theory alone will not get anyone very far in the modern workplace. Managers and leaders are constantly in situations where they have limited agency, and the situation requires rapid adaptation and collaboration. This requires wisdom and you can’t teach this – it only comes through carefully crafted pedagogy to habituate students into reflective practices, self-awareness, a philosophy of being.
The degree’s popularity is, in part, because its graduates recognise the transformative impact this approach has on their work – and life. EMBA alumnus Paxton Anderson, CEO of financial services start-up Peach Payments, says that the degree offers a more experiential, emergent style of thinking and exposes students to different ways of viewing the world. “Often this shift in perspective or a process of questioning closely-held beliefs can lead to creative entrepreneurial breakthroughs,” he says.
Fellow graduate, Buhle Goslar, Chief Customer Officer at JUMO – a financial technology platform that connects under-served customers in Africa and Asia to financial services – believes in the power of industry disruption to drive broader access to health, education, financial services, transport and communications. She says, “market disruptors are, out of necessity, lion-hearted – they are not afraid of tension and complexity. Instead, they seek it out as a vehicle to seeing the world as it really is. They ask ‘why not? If not this way, then how?’” She also believes that successful disruptors find creative ways to learn.
To get people into the space Goslar and Anderson describe, is not something you can teach. It has to be experienced and embodied. Our job therefore is to provide students with reflective strategies and practical insight that help them to build their capacity to live with the disharmony and complexity that come standard in the world of business today, as well as to question the things they think are true. To this end, our EMBA was one of the first in South Africa to integrate mindfulness into the classroom and we are among a handful of business programmes worldwide that have made it a compulsory part of the core curriculum.
The practice of mindfulness has been shown to, among other things, help individuals stay on task, approach problems with an open mind, and avoid taking disagreements personally. According to a metastudy by Daniel Goleman, co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University, and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson, there are four tangible and proven benefits from mindfulness training as it applies in the workplace. These include stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and good corporate citizenship.
Because mindful leaders are better able to regulate their emotions than leaders without a mindfulness practice, they are less reactive and more responsive, and they adapt more quickly as situations change. They are more likely to be aware when things are uncomfortable or not working out as planned and can temper their reactions; they learn instead to respond more creatively. They are also less likely to resort to misleading or manipulating those around them for self-glorification and to be – in short – more ethical.
Ethics has, of course, been taught in business schools for years—but more often as a footnote. Our approach is to rather headline ethics by getting people to really connect with their values and purpose and to link that to what they are doing in the here and now.
Equipping tomorrow’s leaders and managers with the skills, moral compass and the wisdom to build a more sustainable and equal world, is a key driver of all that we do at the UCT GSB. It is significant that the FT ranked the EMBA 5th in the world for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a measure of the proportion of core courses dedicated to CSR, ethics, social and environmental issues. And just a few weeks before, our MBA programme was awarded a place in the Top 40 2019 Corporate Knights Better World MBA Ranking.
Across the world students are demanding that they be trained for meaningful work that is engaged in solving the pressing social and environmental problems that threaten the future of business and civilization more broadly. We have heeded that call at the UCT GSB. We were one of the first business schools globally to make social innovation a mandatory part of the MBA curriculum and now boast the largest academic body of social innovation and related fields, including impact investing, in Africa.
In doing all of this, we’ve really pushed the boundaries of what business education can be. In a sense we have been the academic equivalent of a venture capitalist – investing in our own ideas to build a business school that seeks to do things differently and build a better world. It is gratifying to see that this approach is now gaining real currency on the global stage.
Kosheek Sewchurran is the Interim Director of the UCT Graduate School of Business.