New HBS Dean talks of competence, character, internationalism, and dirty boots. Adcom will follow suit

The soul-searching at Harvard Business School over business ethics and the relationship between business and society has been widely documented. From Anderson to Enron to Lehman Bros., risktaking, dodgy, and sometimes outright criminal companies have been loaded with HBS alumni (as well as many from other schools as well, let’s not forget.) But somehow, of all business schools, perhaps because of its self-proclaimed “leadership and influence” focus, Harvard sees itself as needing to lead a new era in business-society relations.

With this as background, a recent Economist piece views the appointment on July 1st of new dean Nitin Nohria as part of a general HBS ethics-focused shake-up.

“Mr Nohria is the first HBS dean who was not born in North America. He is also the first who has come to the job having said that business faces a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ and that business education is at an ‘inflection point’…

“Mr Nohria’s first task is to try to restore faith in business in general and in business schools in particular. This means improving two things, he reckons: “competence” and “character”. He wants the faculty to focus more on the risks of clever financial techniques; they will have plenty of case studies to choose from. He also wants HBS to renew its commitment to shaping its students’ characters as well as their intellects. He has long argued that business people should regard themselves as members of a profession. He supports a movement by students to adopt a business equivalent of the Hippocratic oath… (For more on the MBA Oath see here.)

“Mr Nohria’s other great passion is for super-charging innovation at HBS. This will involve making the school even more globally connected than it already is: one of Mr Nohria’s first acts as dean was to embark on a whistle-stop tour of the world’s business hot-spots. More ambitiously, he wants to rethink the school’s hallowed teaching methods. Since the 1920s, HBS students have pored over case studies of business decisions. The new dean wants them to take part in live case studies—to take themselves to the Midwest or Mumbai and spend time working for real companies. This answers one of the most persistent criticisms of business education: that it is too abstract. Mr Nohria wants his students to get their boots dirty.”

So there is clearly a manifesto from the top of HBS to (1) address character issues and define competence more broadly, that is, to exclude absurd risk-taking; (2) to increase the school’s active global connections, including in emerging markets, in the spirit of innovation, and; (3) to extend the case-method to include “do-it-don’t-just-think-about-it” immersion.

Nobody is suggesting that the Dean makes admissions decisions directly. But HBS Adcom as a whole can hardly be immune to the strong winds of this new directive either. Therefore, applicants who (while staying true to themselves!) show evidence of good character, a measured risk-taking profile, global-innovative intent, and readiness to go beyond the ivory tower during their studies and afterwards, will be doing themselves a favor.