Is There a Cure for MBAs’ Narcissism?

Business School AdmissionsOn Sunday the Financial Times ran an article by Stanford GSB professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who argues that today’s business schools are producing increasingly self-focused grads who shy away from tough challenges and are incapable of the empathy that makes great leaders. While we mostly agree with his diagnosis, we think his cure comes up short.

No, this is not a response in which we defend MBA programs and their graduates. We think that Pfeffer’s description of many young professionals is right on target: Millennials who have all had a chance to be valedictorian and have been shielded from any true academic or professional adversity until now. What was first a trickle back in 2006, as these young adults first started applying to graduate schools, is now a full-blown gusher. Unfortunately, our communities — starting with parents — have made many of today’s young professionals “softer” and virtually unable to face (much less act on) constructive criticism.

This is very much a “Young adults need to face adversity and be challenged more” problem, not a “Business schools make people narcissistic” problem, and Pfeffer mostly gets that right. But, that’s pretty much irrelevant — we do agree that many of (not all, of course) the grads coming out of today’s top graduate schools unfortunately embody many of the negative traits that Pfeffer describes. Where he goes wrong is that he unfortunately overstates the impact that business school has on these grads.

His proposed solution is expose these students to more empathy-improving lessons and case studies, among other things. (He also proposes getting rid of the “You’re so amazing speech delivered by the dean of admissions every year. This is probably a good idea.) Our concern is that even two years of case studies and lectures about the principles of power and influence will probably move the needle very little. While these students are still young, the die has already been cast to a large degree. If they are easily-offended quitters by the time they’re 25, it;’s hard to imagine a couple dozen case studies changing that in less than two years.

Like many academics, Professor Pfeffer makes the mistake of overstating the impact that actual classroom instruction has on MBA students. These students parents, their middle-school teachers, their high school coaches, their college support networks, and their first managers already have a 25 year head start on a professor armed with a case study and a whiteboard… Who do you think will win out?

Many top MBA programs — Harvard Business School certainly comes to mind, and Stanford thinks of itself that way, too — like to describe themselves as institutions that “transform” young professionals. Bring us your raw material for great leaders, they say, and we’ll turn them into titans of industry. But if that raw material is already flawed, the likelihood is low that the final product will be one that would make Pfeffer proud.

Parents need to let their kids fail every now and then, and high school need to stop churning out a dozen valedictorians per class per year. And MBA admissions officers need to start screening more for the traits that the FT article describes. If they can do that, then Jeffrey Pfeffer may like what he sees in the Stanford GSB Class of 2030.

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