The dawn of the 21st century has ushered in a plethora of global problems and challenges, not the least of them being issues of poverty, inequality, social injustice, climate change, globalisation, socio-political crises, unemployment and food insecurity. In response, there is a critical need to accelerate efforts to educate the next generation of business leaders in social responsibility and sustainability, primarily because there has been a lack of progress on the business leadership front to address these socially-laden problematiques and there is now, more than ever, a strong need to scale up our efforts. This imperative is tied to the fact that we live in a world on the cusp of dramatic global change and disruptions.
Innovative thinking is required to manage emerging issues such as the need for solutions to reduce the impact of socially irresponsible business behaviour; harnessing the power of the market for sustainable development; plans for encouraging entrepreneurship with a social responsibility focus and fostering and enhancing a circular global economy. This would require the new leadership coterie to obtain training beyond the traditional business and management disciplines and skills acquired during their formal education. Furthermore, there is also there is a need to inspire and engage an entire new generation of business leaders before losing them to distrust, apathy and “status quo” consumption habits and lifestyles.
In the context of the above, we argue that business education cannot be as usual. The business world cannot continue to aspire for financial gain at any cost. Business education has to ensure that its graduates do not contribute to the type of scandals that shook the very foundations of the global economy in 2008.
Whilst business education providers have begun to recognise the importance of social responsibility and sustainability, they are slow and ill-prepared to make the necessary pedagogical change. Educating future business leaders in finance, strategic management, and analytic reasoning continues to be the province of management education. Moreover, several business schools are beginning to address the values of social responsibility and sustainability. There is however wide variance in the depth and integration of social responsibility and sustainability in their core curriculum.
According to recent research, the largest push for change in business education comes from business students themselves, who understand that the dangerously narrow focus on shareholder value has wreaked havoc with people, the environment and corporate profits as well.
As global organisations continue to be challenged regarding their impact on citizens, cultures, and the environment, issues of ethics, social responsibility, social justice and sustainability are becoming important curricular elements in leadership education, especially those which encourage students to consider social value creation in leadership decisions.
Since many of the issues that plague the global community are related to sustainability and social responsibility, ethical considerations add an additional layer to the complexity. Likewise, because these value-laden issues are intertwined with the economic needs, social concerns and political inequality, new kinds of analysis emerge calling to question commonly held beliefs and pedagogy. Business educators are slowly realising that well-designed socially-responsible and sustainability practices can contribute to business leadership, which could significantly assist in creating positive benefits not only for business organisations, but also for the environment, the economy and society at large.
The challenge in business education, therefore, is to define approaches that are appropriate in connecting meaningful work with sustainable community outcomes. In this respect, a paradigm shift is required in business education to respond to the negative impacts of unsustainable business practices and to redefine the role of business in society. Equally, transformative change of the kind needed to address the issue of sustainability requires a shift in pedagogical practices in leadership education. One way to ensure that leaders have the foundation for socially responsible and sustainable decision-making and transformative change is through fundamental change in the education of our leaders.
The new business school curriculum has to encourage critical thinking, individual action, and advocacy for the collective responsibility for resources, provide a framework for a socially responsible and sustainable education grounded in preservation of planet earth from a just and equitable approach. This theoretical posture moves social responsibility and sustainability from being solely an issue of economic growth to a place where economic activities are supportive of wellbeing and justice.
The world needs business leaders with a vision that looks beyond the short term to be able to face the challenges of a changing world. Today’s business leaders and those of the future need to account for the threats posed by climate change, resource scarcity, and a growing population increasingly keen to hold business accountable for its social and environmental impacts.
Finally, we posit that business leadership needs to move to new and encouraging directions. Business education needs to champion the shift away from the business as usual mantra to embed wider social responsibility and sustainability issues in their academic agenda. The world needs business leaders with a vision that looks beyond the short term to be able to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world.
Dealing with issues of social responsibility, sustainability, social justice is an unprecedented challenge. We live in a world which is faced with multiple, interconnected problems, such as climate change and significant environmental degradation, inequality, poverty and food insecurity, but we also have the unique opportunity to redesign and recreate sustainable futures. However, the sheer complexity of these challenges calls into question the capacity or the desirability of business leaders to comprehend or address it in its entirety.
A whole generation of business education students will need to be engaged to think and act in a way that matches the scale of these challenges. Indeed, this is an exhilarating time for innovative business leaders as society is challenged to re-design and re-think many of its assumptions about progress, development and the finite capacity of spaceship earth to provide the resources necessary to sustain human enterprise. There are no tried and tested blueprints for this endeavour. There is, however, need for will. The future starts today.
Paresh Soni is the Research Manager at the Graduate School of Business – MANCOSA