Mindfulness makes for more ethical business leadership




As a business school in an emerging market, the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) is exposed to complexity and flux — but in a volatile and uncertain world, its expertise in navigating this is increasingly being recognised.

According to the Financial Times, the school was recently ranked 47th in the world, and the best in Africa in 2019, for its MBA specialising in Executive Management (EMBA) .

The ranking is a significant endorsement of the institution’s drive to produce ethical and empathetic leaders for the 21st century.

The EMBA is focused on the practice of management and leadership rather than on traditional training in business functions.

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 that successful disrupters find creative ways to learn.

She also believes in the power of industry disruption to drive broader access to health, education, financial services, transport and communications.

She says: “Market disrupters 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.”

To get people into the space Goslar and Anderson describe, is not something you can teach. It has to be experienced and embodied. GBS therefore aims to provide students with reflective strategies and practical insight that helps 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, mindfulness is 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 organisations 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 are 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. It is better 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 at GSB. It is significant that the FT ranked the EMBA fifth in the world for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a measure of the proportion of core courses dedicated to CSR, ethics, social and environmental issues.

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 civilisation more broadly.

GSB has heeded the call and has made social innovation a mandatory part of the MBA curriculum.

In doing all of this, GSB has pushed the boundaries of what business education can be, in a sense becoming the academic equivalent of a venture capitalist — investing in our own ideas to build a business school that seeks to do things differently for 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

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