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Why the Business World Needs New Leaders

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Joseph Wilzbacher

Have you been asked or questioned what the purpose of a corporation is lately? The definition has been a moving target and up for interpretations. From townships, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and other public-private corporations set up to serve the public to the modern acceptance of maximizing profits, history has demonstrated evolutions of the concept, which means there is no one true definition. A new generation of leaders may have a say in this next evolution of business’s purpose. An engaging and at times philosophical discussion took place at the inaugural SXSW-Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this October as four educational leaders offered insight into what they believe the new generation of business leaders will look like. Marketing the sustainability of a product can be challenging, but what about marketing the sustainability of future and existing business leaders. Is a shift in education really what will provide young leaders a leg up on the competition or will it be business education as usual? These folks strongly believe in the former.

This panel, facilitated by the Presidio Graduate School President and CEO Bill Shutkin, included rhetoric on the purpose of a business and promoting institutions that produce leaders who can understand and adapt to new realities of our global society. Rick Bunch, program director of the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan, illustrated the complexity of new leadership going beyond profits, 90-day horizons, and even environmental stewardship.  He insightfully noted that we may cheer biofuel or EV technology, but at the expense of substituting our food supply and creating demand for lithium, a conflict mineral used to make the batteries. It’s more complex than just environmental stewardship; there is a social dimension too. Judith Samuelson from the Aspen Institute said leaders need to understand these dimension and move beyond the one-dimensional purpose of shareholder primacy through maximizing profits, externalizing costs, and discounting the future. The present and future requires leaders who can handle these complexities and they argue a new educational platform will be required.

Are new leaders the answer? Nudging business education away from the dominant lessons of maximizing shareholder profits won’t be an easy task. It’s been so engrained in our competitive culture and provides an appealing simplicity. The purpose of business and the leaders who frame that definition will do so with what they know and value. Will what they know and value evolve naturally as the business case for sustainability is understood or is marketing power required to gain traction and accelerate the change over?

Shutkin and the panel introduced the concept of entrepreneurial and “intrapreneurial” enterprises in this context. Leading institutions such as the Michigan, Stanford, and Yale are making internal transformational change to adapt to the new realities, what may be considered an intrapreneurial endeavor. Simultaneously, entrepreneurial institutions like Presidio Graduate School and Bainbridge Graduate Institute are complementing this transformation. Current business leaders show a parallel of these two approaches with corporations like Wal-Mart aligning with start-ups in hopes that they together offer a sustainable influence to our new economy.

It appears there is demand from the new generation of students but no certainty the demand will translate into a responsible infrastructure to meet that demand. Is this supply side economics being applied to business education or is there truly a necessity to understand the ecological system our economy works within and the strengthening interdependence of natural systems with our man made systems?  Can these institutions reshape leadership of the next generation? I’ve already cast my vote, as I’m with the same school as the panel, literally and theoretically.

Joseph Wilzbacher is an MBA candidate at the Presidio Graduate School and Engineer Manager at Samsung

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