2018 Bowen Island Retreat

December 24, 2017

Leadership, Social Science and Ethics

Hosted by Dr. Robin Barrows
March 9-10, 2018 at The Lodge at the Old Dorm, Bowen Island
RSVP to glsp@sfu.ca

Bowen Island retreats are a great way to have an extended discussion with both alumni and current students. The retreat begins late afternoon on a Saturday and runs until noon on Sunday.

“Leadership…is a fashionable subject at present. If you do a search on the internet you will find literally millions of links to leadership academies. Everyone it seems, from business schools to Oprah Winfrey, is in on the business of teaching people how to be successful leaders, and often they promise to do so in only a few hours or days. It makes you wonder whether there can be any followers left.”

Thus writes Margaret MacMillan in “Persuasion and the Art of Leadership”, the first chapter in her book History’s People: Personalities and the Past, based upon her Massey Lectures. As her subtitle sufficiently hints, she sees leadership quality as the outcome of certain kinds of personality or character, whilst further recognizing that circumstances also play a vital role in the display (or lack of) leadership.

That old-fashioned view is sharply at a variance with most contemporary thinking about leadership in, for example, schools or faculties of business and education. It is, in particular, at odds with the view implicitly or explicitly expressed throughout its history by the Harvard Business School, the subject of a recent study by Duff McDonald: The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA elite, which I should like to take as a text for the Bowen Island Retreat.

The book, it should be stressed, is primarily a critical history of this specific institution and not a critique of business schools or MBAs in general, and, as such, focuses on certain particular issues such as the tendency of HBS only to employ its own alumni and for HBS alumni to tend to employ for the most part their fellow alumni, the changing attitude of the school towards the idea of a science of management, and the relationship of the school to the rest of the University.

However, where the shoe fits… It seems reasonable, for example, taking the Harvard example as a starting point, to pursue the question of whether the idea of a science of management makes sense, or to discuss in general the so-called “revolving door” issue in politics and business, or the place of professional schools and “vocational education” (a contradiction in terms?) in universities.

More generally, the text provides food for thought on a wide-ranging number of issues of moral, political, philosophical and educational interest.

What is the difference between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’? What constitutes good leadership? Can one assess it scientifically or is it necessarily a matter of judgment? What counts as success in business? Behind many such questions lie further questions about the social sciences: for instance, can they in fact be scientific without distorting reality? One of the most serious claims in the book is that in general the HBS alumni act without due moral concern, partly because the school allegedly does not take ethical considerations seriously in its curriculum. Does this matter? If so, what needs to be done? And that question obviously leads into the wider question of what the limits of capitalism, if any, should be.

Finally, a central philosophical issue for me is what I term ‘the generic fallacy’, that is to say the widespread view, particularly in education and business, that what are in fact complex bundles of disposition, various particular low-level skills, understanding and judgment, are simply generic skills applicable across the board. Thus, creativity, critical acumen, and giftedness no less than leadership are seen (erroneously in my view) as skills that can be taught and then utilized as and when desired.

The book, though long, is very readable and at times very funny; overall, it seems to me a book that is both interesting in itself and certain to give rise to many further questions of importance.

Dr. Robin Barrow is a professor with the faculty of Education, SFU.  He is a member of the GLS Steering Committee, and has taught courses for GLS, most recently for our PhD cohorts.

His research is primarily in the areas of epistemology and moral philosophy. Particular areas of interest include: educational theory, humanities, the problematic nature of empirical inquiry into human activity, and the role of higher education.