How Catholic business schools can do better than Harvard

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Lawrence Fouraker was dean of the Harvard Business School in 1974, when I enrolled in the advanced management program for academic executives. Perhaps it was simple dean-to-dean courtesy (I was then the dean of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University in New Orleans), but Dean Fouraker showed me around the campus on my first day. We went into Aldrich Hall and stood in the front of an empty horseshoe-shaped classroom and he explained, “The first-year M.B.A. student takes a seat here on the first day of class, looks around at the other students and says, ‘They are the enemy.’”

That struck me as really strange. Presumably it summed up the competitive culture that, by design, characterized the school. But it fell far short of setting the tone needed to humanize the world of business once these Harvard students arrived there.

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A solidly researched and highly critical book about the Harvard Business School, Duff McDonald’s The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite, came out earlier this year. (See David O’Brien’s thoughtful review.) As one who has taught in M.B.A. programs and undergraduate business programs at several Jesuit universities, and as an admirer of the “passport” character of the Harvard M.B.A., I read it with more than an ordinary level of interest. It prompted me to think of both the challenges and opportunities facing business programs in Catholic institutions of higher education today.

Can Catholic business programs compete with the “elite” schools while being faithful to the countercultural moral values of the Christian Gospel?

At the undergraduate level, Notre Dame, Villanova, St. Thomas (in St. Paul, Minn.) and several of Jesuit schools, like Santa Clara, Georgetown, Fordham and St. Joseph’s, offer excellent business programs. But McDonald’s subtitle (the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite) raises the question: What specifically Catholic, or Jesuit, or Augustinian, is finding its way into the curricular and extracurricular experience of students enrolled in those Catholic business schools? They are all more expensive than their state-supported counterparts; what do they offer that is worth the higher price? And can they compete with the “elite” schools while being faithful to the countercultural moral values of the Christian Gospel? I think they can.

Cooperation is more likely to be promoted in the Catholic business school than at Harvard, even though it is educating for success in a competitive business world. The Catholic business school has to be first-rate across the board in accounting, marketing, management, finance, human resources, risk management and all the other specialty areas, but it also has to be unapologetically committed to the exploration of the ethical issues their graduates will meet on the job. Not to have opened their eyes to the ethical challenges is to have sent them out as moral nomads into the real world of business—which, the Catholic business schools hope, will be a better world because of the presence of their graduates.

The Jesuit segment of the world of business education has to identify its roots in Ignatian spirituality in order to find direction in the modern world. This means taking a long look at the life and person of St. Ignatius Loyola, and becoming familiar with his unique contribution to Catholic spirituality, the Spiritual Exercises.

In the Spiritual Exercises there is a special meditation on Two Standards: “the one of Christ, our Supreme Commander and Lord, the other of Lucifer, the mortal enemy of our human nature.” A “standard,” as used here, is a military banner or guidon employed to lead forces into battle. That meditation further explains that “Christ calls and desires all persons to come under his standard” and then invites the retreatant, in an exercise of the imagination, to place himself or herself in the presence of Christ and simply listen:

Consider the address which Christ our Lord makes to all his servants and friends whom he is sending on this expedition. He recommends that they endeavor to aid all persons, by attracting them, first, to the most perfect spiritual poverty and also, if the Divine Majesty should be served and should wish to choose them for it, even to no less a degree of actual poverty; and second, by attracting them to a desire for reproaches and contempt, since from these results humility. In this way there will be three steps: the first, poverty in opposition to riches; the second, reproaches or contempt in opposition to honor from the world; and the third, humility in opposition to pride. Then from these three steps they should induce people to all the other virtues.

The Standard of Christ offers what is clearly a countercultural Ignatian principle of leadership. The three steps to genuine success are: poverty, as opposed to riches; receiving insults or contempt, as opposed to the honor of this world; and humility, as opposed to pride. “From these three steps let them lead men to all other virtues,” Ignatius writes.

The late Jesuit cardinal, Carlo Martini, once remarked that delivery of the Spiritual Exercises, particularly the proclamation of the Standard of Christ, is “the service that the Society of Jesus is called to perform for the Church today.” To the completely secular eye, that will be seen as no service at all. To the eye of faith, acceptance of the genuine Ignatian vision and values will be seen as a form of liberation that frees a person to become an effective leader.

To the eye of faith, acceptance of the genuine Ignatian vision frees a person to become an effective leader.

The leadership lesson to be derived from Ignatian spirituality can be interpreted by reference to a secular setting completely unrelated to the context of spirituality: namely, a back-office service company called S.E.I. Investments in Oak, Pa., where a form of humility is held up for praise and imitation. As William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre write in their 2008 book Mavericks at Work, “At SEI, the most effective leaders exude a blend of humility and ambition—humbition—that relies on the power of persuasion rather than formal authority.” It is crucial for a Jesuit school aiming at recognition and excellence in all it does to be able to explain its characteristically Jesuit approach in terms that the secular world understands. The word humbition helps a lot in that regard. Think of it as an amalgam of humility and the magis (the Latin word Ignatius used to describe the extra effort, the greater reach expected of those who would follow Christ), and you have a clue to the Jesuit approach to the idea of leadership.

Further assistance in bringing these spiritual ideals down to earth can be found in a famous article by Jim Collins, a business consultant, that ran in the Harvard Business Review in January 2001. Collins combines “humility and fierce resolve” as a different kind of passport, to what he calls “Level 5 Leadership,” which he understands to be “the highest level in a hierarchy of executive capabilities.”

"The most effective leaders exude a blend of humility and ambition—humbition—that relies on the power of persuasion rather than formal authority.”

In contrast, the Standard of Satan represents, according to Ignatius, a three-step strategy intended to trap the unwary and lead them away from Christ and into perdition. To ignore this warning is sheer folly. And for Jesuit schools not to forewarn their students about this threefold threat is a tragic failure comparable to permitting them to sleepwalk into an unknown future.

In order to facilitate a consideration of the Standard of Satan, Ignatius would have us “consider how [Satan] summons innumerable demons, and scatters them, some to one city and some to another, throughout the whole world, so that no province, no place, no state of life, no individual is overlooked.” Ignatius instructs us to “consider the address [Satan] makes to [the demons], how he goads them on to lay snares for men, to seek to chain them. First they are to tempt them to covet riches (as Satan himself is accustomed to do in most cases) that they may more easily attain the empty honors of this world, and then come to overweening pride. The first step, then, will be riches, the second honor, the third pride. From these three steps the evil one leads to all other vices.”

The Jesuit viewpoint shaped by the Spiritual Exercises is clearly countercultural. When the economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s landmark book, The Affluent Society, was making the rounds in the late 1950s, the author’s comments about the “basic benefits” of wealth reflected the values of the dominant culture, but they also struck an unintended echo of the Standard of Satan. Galbraith wrote, “Broadly speaking, there are three basic benefits from wealth. First, is the satisfaction in the power with which it endows the individual. Second is the physical possession of the things which money can buy. Third is the distinction or esteem that accrues to the rich man as a result of his wealth.” The power-possession-esteem triad echoes the strategy Ignatius saw as the trap set by the enemy of our human nature. Graduates of Jesuit business schools should have antennae that are attuned to these cultural currents.

Jesuit business school educators should embrace the idea of “humbition.” They should think of the importance Jesuit spirituality attaches to avoiding the riches-honor-pride trap, to not being possessed by your possessions. They should also think of how far they have to go in persuading their students of the validity and practical worth of the countercultural values that underlie the Jesuit brand. If this seems hemispheres removed from the Harvard Business School culture, that recognition only serves to measure the challenge facing Jesuit business schools, and Catholic higher education rooted in other spiritual traditions, as they strive to be both different and better than their secular counterparts.

Assuming instructional and research excellence on all disciplinary fronts, Catholic business schools will be first-rate only if they succeed in making Catholic values, like spiritual poverty, and creative notions, like humbition, part of the brand.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Burke
3 months ago

I was interested in Fr. Byron's emphasis on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius as a guiding light of Catholic and Jesuit Business Schools.

As a 1968 graduate of Creighton's School of Business Administration, I know for a fact that the 'Spiritual Exercises' were never mentioned directly in my Creighton Undergraduate Business classes. Later, as I became familiar with the 'Exercises,' I wondered why my Jesuit University's Business classes rarely, if ever, expressly utilized this exquisite gift to the Church and to individual discerners.

Perhaps Fr. Byron's article should be forwarded to the Deans of Jesuit Colleges of Business.

J Cosgrove
3 months ago

As a graduate of the Stanford Business School, we use to tongue in cheek refer to the Harvard Business School as the "Stanford of the East."

The schools were very different in their approaches as I found out quickly. Stanford did not use case method exclusively though over half our classes were based on cases. The big difference was the competitive nature of the discussions. We were encouraged to come to the best solution among many but not at the expense of bettering our classmates as it was apparently done at Harvard.

Stanford introduced ethics into its curriculum years ago. I assume it is still there. I'm not sure it is/was the same as what Fr. Bryon would envision. I assume other business programs have similar themes in their curriculum.

I wonder at the value of these schools today as they cost over $100 k a year. One can get the same curriculum in a Teaching Company course. But it will not have the same prestige as actually graduating from the school or the effect of the classroom discussions of the cases. These were incredibly informative as to what business or any complex organization is about and how various ones operate and what works or doesn't.

I have to disagree with Fr. Bryon on Galbraith. He is missing the most important aspect of wealth. Wealth if used wisely allows one to create or support creativity with the excess earned. That is the secret of the West's success. Investment for whatever reason has created our modern world. It doesn't mean we will live wisely but it does create opportunity. Opportunity that wasn't there before the 1800's when free market capitalism changed the world from a short, poor, brutish and nasty existence to what we see today.

Joseph J Dunn
3 months ago

Galbraith was a self-proclaimed socialist, so of course he missed entirely the value of investment. In that regard he did reflect the dominant culture of his day. The nation still had very high tax rates on personal upper incomes and corporate income. President Eisenhower, though a Republican, was convinced that high tax rates were needed to balance the federal budget, and continued the tax programs of the FDR and Truman years. The impact on investment became visible by 1958, when Ike became concerned about innovation and called together a special group to recommend measures to boost innovation and economic growth. Edwin Land, president of Polaroid Corporation, pointed out that the U.S. was focused on mass production of things we had already achieved, rather than innovation and building for the future. By 1961, when JFK took office, the unemployment rate was stubbornly high at 7 percent. His 1963 State of the Union Message proposed a departure from the FDR/Truman/Eisenhower tax regime: "...our obsolete tax system exerts too heavy a drag on private purchasing power, profits and employment...It discourages extra effort and risk. It distorts the use of resources, and causes chronic deficits." Fr. Byron does have it right: Galbraith's distorted view was dominant in the 1950s. I was interested to read that this view (Galbraith's) is consistent with the Devil's plan--I had not thought of that till I read this article, but it does make sense. Cheers.

J Cosgrove
3 months ago

Maybe the editors of America should try to understand "humbition." Free market capitalism is the expression of the natural law or human nature. It is a gift from God to us. It is an extremely powerful force for good and all alternatives pale in comparison. But it must be tempered by a higher nature which is using it as a force for good.

Most Jesuits seem to be stuck in Galbraith's first three characteristics of wealth. They fail to see the real power that wealth can bring to the world if channeled wisely.

For example, a graduate of the B School at Stanford created a program to foster new ventures in third world countries and donated $150 million to it. He was one the first VC's in Silicon Valley. Hopefully it will be positive and spread similar efforts in the future.

Barry Fitzpatrick
3 months ago

It would be helpful research to determine the lasting effect of Jesuit Business School educational ventures on students 10 years and more out of these graduate programs. How do the principles Fr Byron so finely details in his article achieve substance in the "business lives" of the graduates? "Humbition" would be a good place to start in this analysis. The humility required to ground one's ambition in Ignatian values could be the central focus of at least one course in the business curriculum. While not specifically Catholic or Ignatian, I have long admired the approach of Bob Sutton and others at Stanford in surfacing solid and healthy values to put to daily use in the business, values which fly in the face of the power-possession-esteem triad Fr. Byron mentions. There are some "counter-cultural" elements in a number of business programs out there. How about a Jesuit conference to bring some of Fr Byron's ideas to fruition in their Jesuit University Business Schools?

Joseph J Dunn
3 months ago

While Father Byron focuses on Harvard and its competition-prone model, it is worth noting that University of Virginia's Darden School of Business has excellent graduate programs that include quite a bit of ethical discussion in the MBA and executive ed programs. In their doctoral program the first year is devoted to reading and discussing the 'Great Books.' At Darden, they have obviously figured out that since customers are human and co-workers are human, it is wise to humanize the business curriculum.

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