Wednesday, September 10, 2014 Thursday, July 17, 2014

Count to ten when a plane goes down…


Just a little under 31 years ago, I played a key role in a conspiracy theory that grew up around a passenger plane downed by a Russian missile.  Trust me, I did not mean to be involved. 

On September 1, 1983, Korean Airlines flight 007, a Boeing 747 with 269 passengers, was shot down over the Sea of Japan.  At about 6am that morning, I arrived at my summer job at the American Embassy in Tokyo where my task was usually to start up the computer which had been turned off over night.  But on this morning, I realized the system was already engaged and that a surprisingly large number of workstations had been left on over night. While rare, I had seen this pattern before when a Washington deadline for information was looming.

Not long after I arrived in my office, I received a call from a secretary in the Agriculture Department who liked to play a computer game before her workday started.  Her favorite game had a bug that regularly froze her workstation.  This was the “bad old days” of computers and the only way to reset her station was from my central console. 

On this day, I highlighted her workstation and hit the F6 key to reset.  But my screen went temporarily black and then seemed to be starting again.  I realized that I had mistakenly hit F7 and reset all the workstations in the embassy.   This realization didn’t bother me much, because no one except the Agriculture section secretary was usually on the computer system this early in the morning.

But then all hell broke lose. 

My boss, a Japanese computer engineer named Itoh, poked his head in the door.  This was a shock because I had never seen Mr. Itoh before 10am ever.  My job was to come in early and leave early and he arrived late and stayed late to shut down the system each night.  He asked me what had happened.  I told him I had shut down the system by mistake.  He shook his head and ran down the hall.

Next, the head administrator, who I had only seen once in the computer room, walked in.  He asked where Mr. Itoh was.  I pointed down the hall.  And he ran that direction as well.

More than an hour later,  the Administrative Director returned to my office to explain what had happened. He told me about the Korean Airline disaster and that no one really knew what was going on, but that most of the information available was coming in from Japanese sources—first from Japanese fishing ships in the area and later from Japanese defense forces who were being dispatched to look for debris.  A team of translators and US diplomats had been readying the first report for President Reagan at the time I turned off the computer systems.  As this was a very early computer with limited backup capability, hours of work of dozens of experts had been lost when I inadvertently closed down the computer. 

I, naturally, felt terrible and was, appropriately, fired. 

It was only weeks later that I began to comprehend the effects of this single keystroke mistake.  President Reagan was criticized in the press for his administration’s delayed announcement of the tragedy.  But more troublesome, the reports that were being compiled in the US Embassy at the time of my error were meant to be shared with the South Korean government.  As the team in Tokyo went back to rewriting the report—with clear evidence that the plane had been downed in the Sea of Japan—the South Korean government, working from flawed data, announced that the airliner had simply been forced to land in Russian territory and that all passengers and crew were safe.

That Korean announcement and the slow response by the US President—both caused by delayed real information—caused decades of conspiracy theories.   Until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, many  Koreans clung to the hope that their loved ones were still alive and well in some Siberian prison camp.

So today, in the face of a Malaysian Airline crash in the Ukraine—and with all the associated speculation of 24-hour news organizations and the Tweetosphere, my advice is to take a deep breath, count to ten, and know that there is a very good chance that truth in the matter will be forthcoming very soon.  And let’s hope that there is no stupid 23-year-old with his finger on an important keyboard in this information chain.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Astonished by happiness

Today a long-lost friend from high school “friended” me on Facebook.  In response to her question about how I am doing, I wrote: “My life is not what I might have predicted it would be in high school. But I am astonished by how rich and happy it has become.” It was only after I wrote it that I began to consider what those words meant.

I admit, I sometimes write sentences which sound good as a string of words, but on reflection are not really appropriate representations of my truth.  That is not the case here.  My response to someone I have not known for almost 40 years is about as true as anything I have ever written.

I don’t consider myself “rich” in monetary terms, but I know that 95% of the world’s population would think of me as very well-to-do.  And “monetary rich” is not what I meant by that phrase anyway. I have led a very rich life—I have fathered and raised healthy and happy children; I have seen many of the wonders of the world, I have worked with and for interesting companies and governments, I have taught talented students, I have written books…. But mostly I am rich because I have the freedom to love and be loved.  That is the true source of my happiness.

The real insight in my note to my high school classmate came in the word “astonished.” I wrote it without thinking, but then in a re-read, I found myself stuck on that one word.  Why would I be astonished by my happiness?

I was raised in what I believe was a happy home.  I was twelve years younger than the closest of the rest of my siblings; the product of much older parents.  Once I got around to being a parent myself, I realized what a rare blessing I had to be raised as an “only child” by experienced parents.  I had the run of the house and they had learned when to put on pressure and when to let up. While they were raising me, my parents were in those golden years of their 50s and 60s when people usually report the highest levels of happiness in their lives.  I think they were very happy.

But I suppose I really do believe that I am much, much happier now than how I, then, perceived my parents and the other adults around them; especially when it comes to two of my Greatest Goods in life: Relationships and Individuality. 

I grew up in a very Mormon community where I was told informally and formally (over the pulpit) that “marriage is hard work.” And in my first marriage of 22 years, it was just that.  Of course, there were happy times, but when I look back on it, it was more at the level of the happiness that I saw in my parents—who remained together for over 60 years and had plenty of true joy in their lives. That level of happiness could make for a very fine life.

But now, I am married again, and this relationship of 13 years has been about as far from “hard work” as you can imagine.  Roger and I have only had a couple of arguments in all that time. Everything feels like it comes completely naturally.  But maybe this is just a by-product of meeting your mate when you are older—and maybe a little wiser.  Whatever the cause, however, the outcome has been joy beyond expectation and belief.

I have also found so much happiness in the Individuality that I’ve found in life.  Growing up Mormon, I alternated between feeling like I was one of God’s chosen and knowing that I would never experience a lot of what life had to offer.  Most of the Mormon constraints made a lot of logical sense to me then—they were there to make me a better person and keep me from possible harm.  My much older brother who had strayed from the Church’s “no drinking” imperative ended up struggling with alcoholism for the rest of his life. I felt protected from that fate by my faith.  So I didn’t drink at all until I left the Mormon Church at age 33. (To leave, I literally had to write a letter to my bishop and ask for my name to be removed from the church rosters.)  No longer officially associated with or obligated to the Church, it turned out that I really enjoy drinking with friends, and, blessedly, do not share my brother’s obsession with the devil water.

But it wasn’t just Mormon theology that I perceived as limiting happiness; more insidiously, there was a cultural imperative to achieve stability and then hold to it tenaciously.  As the product of a generation who had lived through the Great Depression, I really believed that jobs were rare and mysterious gems.  For the first five years of my professional career, I held down two full-time, completely unrelated jobs; just so I would be prepared in case one suddenly went belly up.  Now—and I’m sure my loved ones, with some chagrin,  will confirm this—I quit jobs as frequently as I get them.  And in the process, I have had so many wild, interesting, life-enhancing experiences.  And according to Professor Joaquin Fuster, the more experiences I have, the more neural choices I have at every decision point, so the more freedom I have in my life—it is a virtuous cycle of liberty. And, for me, the more individual freedom I’ve had, the more happiness I’ve found.

My life is far from the relatively donkeywork existence that I expected while growing up.  Of course, as the son of unassuming and humble folk, I fully expect that just writing an article like this will bring pestilence, strife and financial ruin.  I certainly hope not.  But I can say for now, I am wildly happy – and that is astonishing.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014 Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why I’m No Longer a Professor


I have been a professor for 25 years—most of my professional life.  Even when I had full-time corporate jobs, I always took salary cuts to be able to maintain my professor role…because teaching has given me about as much joy as anything in my life. Watching students learn, improve, and gain confidence is an amazing thing! But, last spring, for the first time in three decades—since I first imagined emulating my favorite high school teachers—I realized I have no compulsion to ever be in front of a classroom ever again. 

The morning after I realized the joy had gone out of my work, I saw a news article about suicides among 50-something men in the US going up by 50%.  And I understood.

I now comprehend how others who have lost their passion for their jobs might lose their passion for life at the same time. If I had always defined myself and my worth by my teaching profession, the realization that teaching is no longer offering me any joy came as an awful discovery. 

Fortunately, I am not on the verge of sharpening straight razors and filling bathtubs. My whole life, I’ve been a bit of a…a…and I’m going to make up a word here: a polyopus. In other words, I’ve always had multiple jobs at any given time. Though I’m giving up on teaching, I’m not giving up on life. I still love writing and advisory work—I’m sure I’ll continue those. 

Still, leaving the classroom is heartbreaking; teaching has always been a big part of my life. As an adjunct, visiting, or full professor, I’ve taught in more than a dozen business schools around the world—all these job comings and goings because of one event twenty-five years ago.  

In my mid-20s I was among a group of Harvard MBA students who presented a petition to the school’s faculty, one that was almost unanimously supported by the students. It was rejected by the faculty without a single dissenting vote.  We weren’t asking for easier grades, or more days off, or better teachers.  We wanted more projects. We felt we learned more through hands-on application of concepts than we did in case study discussions.  After teaching for a couple decades, I’m more convinced than ever that this is the absolute best way for business students to learn and prepare for the real world. As for the petition, it was rejected “because the curriculum is for the faculty to decide.” We were scolded for our audacity…our nerve… to suggest to professors how education might be done! I decided then and there that I would never apply for a teaching position at Harvard Business School after completing my PhD at the school.  The tradition and tenure of the place meant that nothing would change anytime soon—maybe ever.

My career since then has been a constant search for an academic home that would allow for me to teach with a focus on relevance, flexibility, self-awareness, real learning, and wisdom. That home is as hard to find as Shangri-La. 

Fifteen years ago, I taught a “flipped classroom” before the term was de rigueur. I sat at the back of the room judging (in my best—what I learned years later was a—Simon Cowell impression) student teams who competed with each other to offer the best solution to business school cases. Their presentations were not based on my lectures or my guided discussions, but rather on their study and learning outside of class.  The institutional response was always the same: I needed to be more “professorial” by standing in front of the room, examining case studies in a standard manner. Never mind that the feedback I received from students – even years later – showed me that they had truly learned during the class.

When I joined another institution that emphasized course evaluations, I saw that as an excellent sign of a more student-focused organization. Promotion and pay were based on achieving the highest student satisfaction ratings. But, I soon learned that statistically insignificant differences in evaluation scores determined wildly divergent financial remuneration. Savvy colleagues whispered that the quickest path to money was to never give students frank feedback: “flatter and never find fault.” Or, better yet, don’t give any feedback at all until the student evaluations are turned in: “entertain them, then give one big final exam or final paper.” I was left to wonder: how can that lead to real learning about real business? It only ended up shortchanging both students and their future employers.

Having exhausted everything I could think of in the US and Europe, I took a job as dean of the top rated business school in Japan (“Shouldn’t Japan have a world class business school?” I thought). The Japanese school had a very different operating model: business practitioners were the teachers, and they trained feverishly for over a year—and within an inch of their lives—to lead a single course.  Each teaching session was timed to Japanese-style precision: ask this question at exactly eight minutes after the hour; offer this insight four minutes later, follow with a well-proven joke three minutes after that. This standardization led to surprisingly good student satisfaction, but there was little room for wisdom or new thinking. In fact, the case studies in use were well-trod: most were written in the late 1980s. This made it impossible to teach business students to hit the ground running upon graduation when they had been imbued only with knowledge of a corporate world that is no more.

Finally, I bailed out of business school altogether and took a post teaching public policy in Singapore.  There, I was free to do what I wanted to in the classroom; but the Associate Dean regularly reminded me that I should not be wearing jeans.

But business education had always felt like my mission.  So on my (inevitable) return to business school—and to the United States—I found the environment less inviting than ever: administrators sat in the back of the room during my sessions to make sure I was teaching in the same manner and with the same materials as other teachers. School executives who themselves had taught little (and, according to students, badly) designed a curriculum based on old, traditional thinking, rather than skills student can readily apply in the real world. They, and the curriculum, demand an insidiously smooth mediocrity, where uncontrolled variation and experimentation are unwelcome, no matter how much students learn from it.  When I gave more A- grades to one section of students versus another—sticking to my explicit contract with students that I will give them a grade based on an absolute, not a comparative standard—my “non-compliance” became a board of trustees level discussion. My degrees-of-freedom in the classroom have been whittled further away by increasingly powerful committees and risk-averse, less-experienced managers.

So where did the joy go?

I think it went where the joy of work goes for many people of my age. It wasn’t just one thing; it was an accumulation.  Perhaps the work itself—if it could be done in a vacuum—would continue to be attractive and even fun. But organizations, bosses, and coworkers impinge in ways that subtract more and more from the joyful (or good) parts until there is none left. I think there’s also less resilience toward all those interferences as I age. In the process, joy eventually became a casualty. 

It’s important to note two things: 1) I am one of the lucky teachers working in higher education where I could exercise a lot of autonomy compared to teachers in primary and secondary schools; and 2) that none of the interventions in the stories above had much to do with my real job of preparing young people to be leaders of tomorrow’s organizations.  But today’s organizations get in the way—impeding, what I believe is, my pretty damn hallowed calling of being a teacher. My obligation is to impart to students all the most important things that I’ve ever learned in my life—then challenge them to be better and smarter than I ever hoped to be. 

I’m actually not disenchanted with the act of teaching. I still love my former students and want them to learn and improve. But I’m sick and tired of the structures around teaching because they get in the way of truly helping students learn and improve—which is supposed to be the whole point, isn’t it?

Sadly, all of this happens at a time of life (in my 50s) when brain-science tells me that I may be at the peak of my cognitive functions. Granted, my brain is not the fastest it has ever been—sheer processing speed has been on a downhill trajectory since I turned 20. But in the next two decades, some pretty amazing things will happen in my head. Scientists tell me I’ll be using both hemispheres of my brain to solve problems that I was only solving with one half in the past. I’m going to get an extra myelin coating around my axons making important associations in my brain stronger than ever before. I’m going to connect disparate information in a way I’ve never been able. This, in turn, will unleash me into the most creative era of life. I’ll have the largest working vocabulary, best comprehension, and most knowledge of my existence. I will be a wise man.

But none of that brainpower is going to be devoted to teaching, because I just checked out.  And while I know that my decision to drop teaching will probably not have any great impact on the world, I do wonder what the aggregate effect of hundreds, or thousands, or millions of other minds—in their prime—will be when they’ve checked out of the global workforce. What are the consequences on humanity?

It’s almost enough to make me reconsider my decision. But then, I just can’t face another day at work. I’m done teaching. I won’t be going back to school. The joy is gone.

-       John Beck is President of North Star Leadership Group and is working on his next book, Old Brains; he used to be a professor. 

photo credit: 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My advice about Harvard: to prospective students … and to other schools


“If you can get into Harvard, you should go.”

That is the advice I have given to everyone who has asked for the last 30 years. The program does not matter; if it says Harvard on it, it is worth enrolling.

There are three big reasons for my recommendation:

1)    You will never have to explain yourself

I’ve never said the Harvard name to any adult in the world who did not know what I was talking about (Okay…okay…I do remember saying “Harvard” to some people in China in 1984 and they looked at me strangely. Then I learned how to pronounce it in Mandarin—“HaFo”—and I was an instant celebrity.)

2)    You can say the stupidest things the world and get away with it

I naturally say some pretty dumb things. They just slip out. Within several seconds, I realize I’ve made a profound mistake and work to fix it. Usually, by that time, others are jumping in to make sense of my stupidity—not to explain it away, but to figure out the spin a Harvard PhD must have placed on the words he chose to make them deep and erudite. That is a rare luxury in this world!

3)    You will go to school with really interesting and cool people

I have stayed close friends with a handful of people since I was in school—truly wonderful people! Even when I run into those with whom I’ve not maintained communication, I’m always really happy to hear about their very interesting, compelling lives. Some have turned into clients and bosses. It is an amazing, international network.

Two of the above rationales might apply to other top-name schools around the world as well. But what is really interesting about the list is what I did not say. I did not say:

1)    You’ll get a better education

2)    You’ll get a more innovative educational experience

3)    You’ll be taught by better teachers

Because none of these things are true. 

So why does every school—especially every business school—strive to emulate Harvard to some extent? Granted, it is the first name in business schools, but not because it was the first business school (it wasn’t), or because it is the biggest (it isn’t), or because it is the top ranked one (it rarely is). It is the premier business school because of the Harvard name—and there is no bigger brand in education in the world. 

Harvard Business School (HBS) also has developed a strong brand name in business education specifically, because of its emphasis on practical research and writing. In the 1920s, the case study method was developed there, and has been imitated in almost every other school on Earth. Harvard’s published business case studies are the staple of every MBA education. HBS professors are, moreover, encouraged to write practitioner-focused books and articles and publish them in the Harvard Business Review—the largest “academic” publication in circulation. The best Harvard professors do a lot of consulting and executive education—they are industry savvy and practical in their world outlook. These are not your average ivory tower academics. 

Well-regarded-case-studies-and-book-writing professors are not good reasons for deciding to matriculate at any business school. In fact, these may work against learning. Generally, professors that research and write academic articles are not great in the classroom. Sure, read their articles, just don’t try to sit through a 3-hour session with them!

Harvard does have a lot of professors who spend significant time in real companies; that should be an excellent rationale to attend a school, but as most Harvard MBAs will tell you, students rarely see these professors at a place like Harvard. When I was a student at HBS I only saw a couple senior professors, and these were not the big name stars. Now, granted, I was at Harvard a few decades ago, but when I talk to current Harvard students and faculty, the experiences sounds eerily familiar; this is to be expected in a place so steeped in tradition.

From a student perspective, the name and the network you get at Harvard are reasons in and of themselves for attending Harvard Business School. As for the rest of what you’ll get there, you can get more and better at many other schools around the world. Or, you can just read a bunch of good books and learn even more than you would in business school because of the way almost all are taught today.

A school bent on mimicking Harvard makes no sense at all because it’s effectively a step backward, not forward. Sure, Harvard makes small changes from time to time in its program and makes a big deal out of them; they’ve inserted a 3-week “field immersion” course into the first year of the MBA program, but this is just an abridged version of what many other schools have been doing for years. Because it’s Harvard, it is touted as the “latest thing” in business education. But any “innovations” the school adds rarely are. Matriculating at a school that copies Harvard is a terrible idea for anyone interested in meeting the complex challenges of today’s business world. You get all the weaknesses and none of the benefits.

But if you get into Harvard, definitely go!

Photo courtesy of Freddy Monteiro.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Accreditation is a joke with teeth

Accreditation in education is a joke—but it is a joke with teeth, and that is where my concern lies. And while only some students care about accreditation itself, almost all students care about business school rankings—and to be ranked, a school is required to have accreditation.

In many states, like California, practically any mom and pop organization can find the accreditation necessary to confer degrees on students.  The current system is a bad joke when it comes to keeping out charlatans at the low end. In fact, this is perhaps the one area where accreditation could actually do some good—it could do a much better job at preventing shoddy education in the first place, to ensure that students paying (often using government loans) for an education really have the potential to learn something.

But accreditation at the elite levels of education is insidiously stultifying. At these levels, accreditation deserves to be discredited. Organizations like AACSB, AMBA, and EQUIS are run like industry guilds.  There was a time when guilds ruled the business world.  Groups of incumbent business people—in an attempt to increase their own profits and remove the threat of new entrants into their businesses—legislated that all companies of a similar ilk do everything the same way. Changes were only possible with the permission of the most powerful participants in the guilds.  All of this was done “to ensure the highest quality.” But if you look at the actual accreditation process, you’d realize that this is hardly happening. 

What does happen is this: If you apply to be accredited, a committee of professors from other universities will show up to assess if you are worthy to join the guild. (And then again, every three to four years to make sure you can stay in the guild.)  These accreditors are people you have never heard of. They have been chosen by their home schools to be the representatives to the accreditor because they can be spared—they aren’t particularly valuable as teachers or as researcher or even as administrators. They are usually still on the payroll because they are tenured—in other words, they can’t be fired—but they do not add much value in any way. 

The accreditation committee then interviews everyone at the school and asks for reams of paperwork to be completed, consuming countless hours and resources that could be better spent teaching students. (One anonymous source told me that for their institution, accreditation was the equivalent of a multi-million dollar tax that did nothing for either students or employers.) The school requesting accreditation often assigns one or more professors to manage the whole process full-time for years on end, and then brings in scores of other faculty and staff whenever the site visits take place.

I have never been assigned as the faculty representative on either side of an accreditation, but I can report on questions I have heard during site visits:

  • “Don’t you think you have too many Indian students?”
  • “Can you really call yourself a school if your library is mostly digital?”
  • “Why doesn’t that fountain work?  When will it be turned back on?”

There are some valid and valuable things that accreditors could do—but accreditors don’t normally do those things. They could ensure that students who get degrees are actually learning something, but instead they focus on mind-numbing syllabus standardization, PhD ratios, and number of articles published—none of which have any proven link to good education. The currently inept accreditation system—a bad joke—will only improve if more schools just follow the advice of another (good) joke from the famous Groucho Marx: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” (Groucho and Me, 1959, p. 321)

see Steve Hodge’s take on accreditation at:

photo: Elliot Brown, flickr

Friday, October 4, 2013

Let’s just put an end to “Fairness”… especially in Congress


Maybe the word “fairness” should just be stricken from our vocabulary—if not the dictionary, at least banned in Washington.  Fairness does not mean anything any more.  This is my conclusion after years of trying to use it as one of the 8 Great Goods.  In the end, I had to change the word to “equality.” 

Right now Republicans in Congress are eagerly trotting out the word fairness in their efforts to repeal Obamacare.  Fairness is a great word for politicians: it means a few very different things, so excellent to use when you don’t want to be pinned down to anything in particular. But what if you exchanged it for the word “equality?”  Is that what the Republicans are looking for?

Over the last six years, I interviewed and surveyed thousands of people in thirty cultures around the world to see if there was any commonality in what we all think of as “good” things.  Through the research, I came to believe that there are 8 Great Goods in the world: Life, Relationships, Belief, Individuality, Stability, Growth, Joy, and Equality.  Our decisions in life are trade-offs among these eight. During the first years of my research, I used the word Fairness instead of Equality. I always ran into troubles with it.

Fairness can be used as a rallying shout for both sides in almost any debate, because it often ends up meaning “fair to me.” But at the same time, the word sports a sheen of Equality—it is a great “high road” word that disguises what often can be selfish intents.  

Equality, meanwhile, is more exacting—easier to measure “equal” than it is “fair”—and Equality is clearly differentiated from the other Goods of Relationships, Stability, and Individuality.  I can be “fair” because I take care of my family or my neighbors—which is really Relationships.  I play “fair” when I follow the rules of law: Stability. Or I can plead for Fairness because I am looking out for myself: Individuality.

The way that Fairness is used in US politics is usually as a proxy for Individuality—our Greatest Good as a nation—so it is not surprising that we hear it a lot. Americans, more than any other group of people on earth, believe it is up to each one of us to make our own way in life—anything that stands in the way of that is “unfair.”

Equality is a more problematic concept in the US. Despite the fact that the most God-fearing among us truly believe “all men are created equal” is inspired phraseology in an inspired document, Equality is a word rarely invoked in the modern Republican party. Even Democrats use it with some trepidation for fear of being labeled as liberal—or even worse as socialist.

“That’s not fair” is a cry we all used to protect our self-interests as children—one that I’m increasingly convinced we should have left in childhood.  Now more than ever, it is time for a debate around Individuality vs Equality, because Fairness vs Fairness is a highly unproductive exercise.  It will result in stalemate—always.  It is unwinnable and unswayable. As voting, law-making adults we need a more precise and productive vocabulary. Without it, there is no hope for more precise and productive actions in Washington.

(photo: PatrickSeabird/flickr)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

My Hope for More Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Schools

Helping students to understand how to cope with the ambiguity and uncertainty that will inevitably surround them as leaders should be the goal of all business school professors.  But it is not.  Instead, we discuss case studies that have “right answers” and are drawn from long-past business environments; we teach from textbooks and administer exams on mathematical models with defined datasets; we require students to “turn off the Internet” when they are in the classroom because we don’t want them distracted by the real world. We do everything we can to limit the issues we discuss in class to our own academic disciplines.

There are lots of reasons behind why modern education systems reject any hints of uncertainty and ambiguity in their world. We see this in the standard metrics of achievement: accreditation, school rankings, and teacher ratings. The very nature of big bureaucracies is to eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity. And when big bureaucracies gang together, they strive to create a world where absolutely nothing is going to change, because those in control rarely benefit from change.

The way that education works today is as a guild system. There was a time when guilds ruled the business world. Groups of incumbent business people, in an attempt to increase their own profits and remove the threat of new entrants into their businesses, legislated that all companies of a similar ilk do everything the same way. Changes were only possible with the permission of the most powerful participants in the guilds. And damningly, this was all done under the guise of protecting customers from charlatans. Little new can be achieved when guilds run the world.

Accreditation and rankings ensure that no school can exhibit too much innovative behavior. Faculty members from competing schools carry out accreditation reviews with a self-interest in the status-quo. School rankings (determined by a set of criteria often designed by journalists who buy into what incumbents tell them) enforce a similar uniformity, and now it’s turned into a big business in and of itself.

Teachers vie for good teacher ratings, which are best achieved through years of practiced, rote delivery of lectures and discussions. The more times you’ve done exactly the same thing as a professor, the more likely you are to achieve your desired result: a stage-like one-woman (or man) performance. A professor’s holy grail is to get students to laugh, cry, and even learn at precisely prescribed moments. That has become our definition of good teaching—and it results in stellar teacher ratings. But this outcome generally requires that no new or unexpected or, heaven forbid, unanswerable questions are allowed to interrupt the carefully crafted show.

Egos, evaluations, and organizational imperatives all work against training students in dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity; they are miscreants that understandably make students, teachers, administrators, and accreditors uncomfortable. It just feels more like a good and proper education when everything about the process is predictable and measurable. Everyone in the system buys into the ideal of a good education “factory.”

Unfortunately, this factory spits students out into current work environments that are usually anything but factories—they are less predictable and uniform than any time since the days that hunter-gatherers trekked the Earth. The more we have “tamed” our work environment and created machines to do the predictable and routine work for us, the more need there is for workplace leaders who can deal with—and even create—the unexpected. The world is changing at a faster rate, posing challenges that are thornier in nature and more complex than ever before. There is no rulebook, no textbook, and no case study on how to tackle convoluted problems with a dash of moral quandary. And there are no teaching notes offering a neatly composed solution.

Employers of newly minted graduates have been complaining about the inability of educational institutions to produce “work ready” managers and leaders for decades now.  But little has been done to bring about any serious kind of change in formal education systems. We still dole out “learning” in almost the same way our grandparents received it.  So, businesses end up taking the brunt of training their new hires in the way the world really works because the ivory tower has never been able to do it well, and is arguably getting worse at it.

Last year, in the face of institutional opposition, I ran an experiment to see how much ambiguity I could squeeze into a single Business Strategy course. The syllabus was spare, the reading list was long and completely “optional,” there were no exams or quizzes, the projects were loosely defined, and the students were expected to teach each other what they were learning. Going into the course, I had no idea if the students could do what I was asking of them: deliver strategic management advice to clients (not supplied by the school or the professor) in a non-native-language in a city where they had never lived before. Three months later, over half of the clients reported they were “wowed” by the teams’ results. 

The students survived, even thrived through the crucible. I did not get the best teacher ratings of my life—it was a really challenging course—but students learned like I have never seen students learn in 25 years of teaching. I had conducted the experiment without the blessings of the institution, and that was too much for the school and for me to bear. We parted ways as soon as the experiment was over. I decided I could never teach again in an institution that limits me to the standardized and predictable.

CEOs around the globe say that they want more from business programs and business graduates. And business schools say they want to better meet employers’ needs. In spite of that, structural impediments remain and obstruct any easy path to teaching about uncertainty and ambiguity. The biggest question on my mind these days is: is there any school out there capable of designing cutting-edge, innovative programs, and educational systems for training the minds of future leaders to thrive in the real—incredibly inexact—world of twenty-first century business? I have not found it yet, but a guy can hope…

(illustration: luke andrew scowen/flickr)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Someone’s gonna get spanked: teaching ethics


When I was in my early 30s with three young kids at home, I renounced my childhood religion—Mormonism. My father tried to talk me out of it by asking how else my children would learn moral behavior. “How will you reinforce what is right and wrong without going to church? I don’t know how I’d have raised you kids without Sunday school and the youth programs.”

I pointed out to him that we both knew good church-going Mormons with a lot of variation in their moral compasses. I particularly focused on a relative of ours who always held top church positions, but who we knew had swindled and cheated his way through life.

I also told my dad that I believe people learn ethics and how to live their values by example—more so than through any instruction they get in Sunday school or church sermons. What I didn’t say to him, though I was thinking it, was that I had always respected him for his natural honesty. I don’t remember getting a lecture from him on the topic, but I’ve tried to be really truthful my whole life—to be like him.

So when the topic of teaching ethics in business schools arises, I have always demurred on being involved in figuring out exactly how to do that, even though I believe most business people could do with a big booster shot of integrity and honesty. But when it comes to determining how to administer that shot, I am almost at a loss.

Here’s why: by the time students have entered their business programs the majority have already had a few years (or more) of experience working in the real world. Most of them have already encountered an ethical dilemma or two on the job, and they’ve already made some decisions about how to act and react based on lessons learned in Sunday School or from the role-models in their lives. Or, maybe the way they act is purely genetic. I can’t be certain.

But I have no doubt that after they get their degrees they will face even more ethical challenges—and the sweet siren song of temptation. This is why I believe business school educators should do something to encourage graduates to be more ethical in the careers. I know employers certainly think business schools should be advocating ethics in the classroom. But I believe there are only two real ways that teachers can impact “integrity” at all:

1)   Through example. Most graduate students have at least one professor or administrator that becomes a bit of a role model for them. Many students are hungry for wisdom and advice; they are paying very close attention and take what faculty and administrators say and do very seriously.

2)   By using “teaching moments” to make it utterly clear that a bad choice can lead to very clear and—in some cases—disastrous consequences.

Schools are a microcosm of what goes on in the business world—there is cheating, bad behavior, and “gray” areas through which students have to navigate.  Anyone who has been around an educational institution very long has seen a lot of bad—sometimes completely unethical—behavior from school administrators, instructors and staff.  And those real-world examples have much more power any lecture or assigned reading.

In my first teaching job, I remember being asked by another faculty member to review a paper by a student she believed to be ghostwritten. I read the paper before even glancing at the cover page. After I read it, I remember thinking: whoever wrote this is possibly the brightest undergraduate ever—clearly smarter than I am! I had to look up a number of words that were used in the paper. Then I turned to the cover page and found the author was the school’s star quarterback.

In a conference call arranged among the quarterback/author, the professor, and me, I asked the student to explain the main idea in the paper, as well as define a list of words that he had used. The student was clearly clueless about all of these. We also heard someone whispering answers in the background. I concurred with the professor’s decision to give the student an “F” on the paper due to clear cheating, which meant that the student would receive a “D” in the course.

Ultimately, the department’s leadership and a university vice president intervened to change the grade of the paper to a “C”. This meant that the student got a passing grade in the course and was able to continue as the starting quarterback. What kind of message do you think that sends? What kind of behavior do you think that encourages? We can’t expect students to do the right thing when academic organizations behave so badly.

Compare that response to an incident last year, when it was reported that about half the students in a Harvard government course cheated on an exam. This case turned out to be one of the largest cheating scandals in memory. After a lengthy investigation, about 70 of the students were asked to leave the university.  I don’t believe anyone involved in that case—even the students who didn’t cheat—will ever forget what happened. The school’s response turned into a powerful teaching moments, which also reignited the debate on the importance of addressing ethics in education.

As I said before, I have no idea how to teach ethics, but I do know that educators can have a powerful impact on their students. Earlier this year, after realizing several teams in one of my courses had engaged in plagiarism on a mid-term project, I decided to do something I had never done before. I devoted most of a 3-hour class to discussing the issue, and outlining the consequences. I told students that all the members of any team that committed plagiarism would automatically fail not just the assignment but the entire course—even if there were people on the team who didn’t know a thing about the infraction. It was a metaphorical punch in the gut. In 25 years of teaching, that may have been the only time I was confident I had every single student’s unequivocal attention—no texting, no web surfing. Dead silence.

After some color started coming back to the students’ faces, I offered a big concession:  teams had a second chance to re-submit their assignments, but the grades for the redo would be discounted by a full-grade (an A paper would get a B, a B would get a C, etc.) But I was not going to tell them which teams I had discovered plagiarizing—if any team feared they might have made a mistake copying words, images, or ideas without attribution, they should resubmit the entire project. Over half of the more than 30 teams resubmitted their assignments knowing full well that their grade would probably be significantly lower.

During the next class, I reminded the students that there are no “do overs” in the real world—there is no safety net. There is only getting fired. By the looks on their faces, I think that the lesson had hit home in a way a lecture or a hypothetical exercise could never have done.

If a business school student (any type of student, really) acts in an unethical way, there have to be consequences. Many teachers avoid the confrontation—it inevitably results in more work.  By and large, administrators also are understandably loath to deal with the paperwork, the appeals, and the threats of lawsuits for taking action against a student who has veered into an ethical grey area. But if schools really want to address the issue of integrity in a way that’s truly impactful, then they themselves must model honesty, consistency, and the reality of consequences. Arguably, schools don’t need a curriculum to do this—no amount of case studies, readings, videos, or discussions can really drive this point home.  What they do need is the gumption and willingness to shine a spotlight on those dark and ugly teaching moments (no one said teaching was all roses) and give them the oxygen and attention they deserve. This is how teachers—or anyone for that matter—can make an indelible impression: model integrity and pause to make a powerful point when needed.  Sunday school is optional.

(illustration: Jim Forest/flickr)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Sad Truth About Integrity in Business Schools


About six months ago, I learned that the most important characteristic corporate executives want from business school graduates is “integrity.” Since then, I’ve spent a part of every day thinking about how integrity can—or should—be taught in business schools.  I hit a practical wall every time.

Let me start with a story. When I was an Associate Partner at Accenture, my boss asked me to interview a potential new hire for our think tank.  The interviewee was nice enough, but I thought we could do a lot better.  I didn’t think he had many new thoughts—and that seemed like a prerequisite for a think tank.  I wrote up my assessment and sent it in.

My boss landed on me like a ton of bricks. “How dare you write that?  Now there is no chance we can hire him!”

“But do we want to hire him?” was my naïve reply. “I’m sure we can find better people.”

“I want to hire him and your write up has gone to HR and they won’t hire him based on your interview notes.”

Granted, I had not known that my boss felt that strongly about this job candidate.  But even if I had, I assumed that the organization as a whole would want my honest appraisal of the candidate.

Apparently no one was really interested in that. (And here I will shift into passive voice to avoid repercussions…) I was directed to rewrite my interview report and avow that I had submitted the wrong report in the first place.  I was told that if I didn’t give a glowing review to this job candidate, I would be fired—and at that time I had a young family and really needed a job.

I rewrote my evaluation; the guy was hired.  As it turned out, I was not wrong in my initial assessment.

This was one of my early, formative experiences with integrity in companies. More often than not, when business people use the word “integrity” (which everyone agrees is a good thing), many really mean “follow the rules” or “do what the boss tells you to do.”  On television and in movies, we all have seen the fictionalized police forces where lying for a fellow cop—even if the officer is doing something illegal—is more honorable than telling the truth.   And so it seems to be within all organizations (law-enforcement or not). The rule is: support the leadership and your comrades even if their ideas and actions are completely wrongheaded.  Speaking out too often or too loudly is definitely a job-ending offense.  Above all “play nice.”

How can that be integrity? 

So how can a business school prepare students better for the reality of that kind of organizational life?  Is it possible for MBA programs to create a whole new generation of corporate leaders for whom “integrity” means unyielding truth and honesty?  How can that be done in a world where dissembling and blame-avoidance are two surefire ways of getting ahead in almost any organization? Should professors teach about the ideal or the real world of business?  And if it is the real world of business, how can a business teacher, in good conscience, tell their charges to always be honest? These are the questions that have been buzzing about my brain for months now. To no avail.  But I am not alone in this predicament.

Three decades ago, Harvard settled on an unsettling solution to the problem of integrity in business education. I was a student at Harvard Business School when John Shad donated $20 million to support more courses on ethics.  Shad had been SEC Chairman and thought business people needed a new culture to curb the abuses that he had seen on Wall Street during the 1980s.  I remember at the time, faculty members wondered aloud how they could possibly spend that much money on ethics: maybe develop a new course? Write some new case studies? Publish software to explore ethical issues?  Eventually, the school built a 118,000-square-foot ultra-luxurious fitness center—mostly for visiting executive education participants—and called it Shad Hall.  The relationship to ethics? Working out together builds camaraderie, we were told.

For the last decade, the “solution” to the business school integrity teaching problem—and not a bad one—has been to punt the problem back to the students themselves.  Many schools now ask their graduates to sign an integrity promise.  This is designed to guide business professionals through their careers as the Hippocratic Oath is meant to guide doctors.  But some MBAs refuse to sign the oath noting that promises like “I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner” may keep them from serving their shareholders well.  Sometimes, lying and subterfuge are part of business—particularly in a highly competitive world and with an obligation for making the most money possible. (

In a memorable study more than a decade ago, a Miami University professor, James Sterns and his Ball State colleague, Shaheen Borna, surveyed minimum security prisoners and compared their responses to MBA students in 11 different programs around the US.  The authors concluded that there was not much difference between the answers given by the two populations—in fact, in many cases, the inmates offered the more “ethical” answers.

Please do not think I am saying that every business person is a bad egg.  That is not true.  However,  I have noticed a particular career pattern among the most integrity-focused of my former students—they drop out of the corporate world.  They become entrepreneurs or teachers or run small, non-profit charities.  Some have told me that they cannot make the compromises that seem to be required of them in large organizations.

Well, here is my “ethical” solution to the problem. With all the integrity I can muster, here is what I want to say to my students past and present: Always tell the absolute truth as you see it.  Point out when someone else is dissembling. Challenge corner-cutting and solutions that make money at the expense of truth. But know that you will make more enemies than friends in your company; you will have troubles keeping a job; you will be marginalized.  Don’t expect bonuses, promotions or “attaboys.”  You may not earn quite as much money in your life.  But you will earn the respect (sometimes begrudgingly) of many.  You will be able to sleep at night. You will end up with something no amount of money in the world can buy: your own self-respect and the satisfaction that you stuck to your guns when those around you were pressuring you to do anything but. And, as very small recompense for all your hardship: I will be proud of you.

But, sadly, the truth is: I don’t think mine is the advice anyone wants to get or give in today’s business world—or in business school.

(Illustration: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)

Monday, July 8, 2013

What Makes Teachers Transformative? Passion

The best professors are passionate – and they change their students’ lives. Of course, getting too passionate could land you in jail, but great teachers get excited, involved, and agitated about almost every part of the educational process.

I remember when I first started teaching—in a subject matter, Strategy, that was not my PhD field—my department chairman informed that I should use a particular textbook because that was the book that all the professors in the department used. Having no real alternative in mind, I obediently taught from the book.  It was a train wreck of a class.  Passion never left the building, because it never entered in the first place. But over time, I learned that if I taught cases and content that has a personal connection for me, my classes had the ability to be transformative.  Students would tell me, often years after they’d been in school, that something about a class I taught had changed them forever.

During my career I’ve had the honor to sit in on classes taught by other professors that have significantly changed me—I wish I could be as good as they are.  But I have noticed that these amazing professors are often not the ones running the department or making the most money.  Administration and publishing are the activities that bring money and prestige in today’s academic world, teaching rarely does.  So I started toying with the idea of a Professor of the Year contest—to honor those who are transformative teachers.

But how do you judge passion in a contest?  That was the conundrum facing us as we began planning for The Economist Intelligence Unit Professor of the Year contest which concluded this past March. 

We decided to start with a nomination process.  We opened it to the world. The artwork in the advertising that appeared in The Economist showed 30-something professionals thinking about older professors.  The copy asked for former students to recommend teachers who had changed their lives.  222 professors from six continents were nominated. Reading some of the heartfelt notes from students was powerful. We were off to a good start.

During the rest of the contest, it became harder to assess passion. Voting for the best nominees meant that those from larger schools, or those better at rallying large numbers of current students to vote for them ended up as finalists.  In wanting to make sure that the webcast “teach off” would look good, we judges defaulted to choosing finalists who came across well in video clips—our bias was toward motivational speakers rather than life-changing teachers.  In retrospect, that was a flaw of the contest design.

Our finalists may have all the passion in the world when they are with their students on their campuses.  But in the artificial competition of 30-minute teaching segments to a random audience who did not even sport nametags, our finalists had very little interaction with their students.  They taught concepts and entertained rather than reaching out to touch and change the audience in any lasting way.  There were only a couple of personal stories offered during the 3-hour final session—and those stories were designed to amuse rather than transform.

In the end, we recognized some talented business professors, and for a day got to shine the spotlight on great teachers. And nothing has dissuaded me from believing that the best professors are passionate.  But adjudicating transformative powers and passion—particularly in world driven by the need for large numbers in advertising awareness, website clicks, or teacher ratings—is probably impossible.  

Here are the numbers that matter to me: during our lives, we’ll have around 100 formal teachers in school or corporate settings.  If most of those do their job pretty well in communicating knowledge and even one, on average, helps make us profoundly better people, the entire educational process has been worth it. 

My challenge to teachers: be the one that teaches with the passion to change lives.

My challenge to students: find that one teacher who sparks your passion and who will help make your life significantly better. And even if you don’t nominate them for a teaching competition, let them know they’ve made a difference. That’s the best reward that any great teacher can receive.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tucker Max is my Friend

I’m a bald, overweight, think tank director.  I’ve advised CEOs, presidents, and prime ministers on corporate and national strategies. I’m not known as the animal at anyone’s party.

On the other hand, Tucker is a good-looking thirty-something; incredibly popular with the ladies. By the time he was in his twenties, he had already gathered a massive cult following of teenage boys, and garnered more public criticism than your run-of-the-mill, extreme-thinking cable news pundit.

 “Tucker Max is your friend?” When it comes, the question brings with it a wide variety of vocal and non-verbal accoutrements: shock, lust, disgust, jaw-dropping awe, shaming contempt … rarely delight.   But the intonation and facial expression depends completely on the age and gender of the utterer.  For anyone over 35, the question never comes at all.

So for those of advanced years, let me explain who Tucker Max is.  Hmmm … as with the facial expressions, there are so many ways to do this. 

Let me start with what is most likely to impress you if you are my age: he is probably the biggest reason that teenage boys voluntarily read books—or anything longer than 140 characters—these days.  And in the time it took you to read that short sentence, you have probably already passed some kind of judgment on the man.

Tucker is most famous for his autobiographical novel, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (an adaptation of which starts its New York City theater run as I Hope They Serve Beer on Broadway in June—and the initial run is already sold out after just one tweet from Mr. Max).  And it was the movie version of that book that introduced me to Tucker in the first place.  My partner and I were back in the U.S for one week from Singapore, where I was a professor and senior advisor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.  A 50-plus female friend of ours told us about a movie “that was completely wrong, but made me laugh involuntarily more than I want to admit.” So we watched it—and had the same reaction.

Two days later we were in Aspen, Colorado at The Renaissance Weekend (not to be confused with a renaissance festival … I was not wearing a codpiece…) and a casually-dressed younger man (in a sea of more formal, older participants) stood up to give a two-minute introductory speech on the assigned topic of “If I only had one thing to say …”

He told the audience, “All of you old people are boring and don’t know how to get and hold younger peoples’ attention.  Quit your humble bragging about who you know and what you’ve done; tell us something that can help us to make our lives better.” The audience was too polite to hiss, substituting stunned silence as their preferred form of disapprobation. 

I wanted to stand up and cheer. I didn’t; but I may have been the only one clapping as he sat down.

A flip through the participant directory, and I made the connection back to the movie I had seen two days earlier.  So I introduced myself.

Born in 1975 (making him young enough to biologically be my offspring), Tucker has degrees from both University of Chicago and Duke.  His bachelor pad in the heart of Austin, Texas is just as you’d expect it—strewn with workout equipment, empty beer bottles, unwashed clothes, and unmade beds.  But there is a difference.  Every wall of the large two-bedroom apartment is floor-to-ceiling metal shelving full of books.  He employs a librarian to come in a couple of days a week and curate his collection. He claims to have read 90% of the books on the shelves.

Bright, well read, and out-spoken … so where’s the controversy?

What makes Tucker the hero of teenage boys and a stomach-turner for some women (and a surprising draw for others) is his blog-turned-books about his drunken exploits and exploitative one night stands.  

The subject matter of his books is also why anyone who knows me has troubles putting us into the same sentence together.   Perhaps, you may think, I’m somehow reliving the follies of my youth through Tucker’s stories.  But you would be wrong.  I was an Eagle Scout and Mormon missionary who never tasted alcohol until he was 33. 

Maybe, his stories of drunken woman-domination offer me glimpses of the young life I wish I could have had? Wrong again. I’m gay.

So what could it possibly be that makes us friends? I’m enough of an egg-headed academic that I actually sat down one day to try to figure this out.  And like any good PhD, I decided to apply a theory to the problem, to see if it shed any light—which it fortunately did.  (Otherwise I would not be writing this article.)

In my latest book, Good vs Good, I argue that there are 8 Great Goods in the world.  And we all make decisions in life based on our prioritization of these Goods, which are:

Life (health, nutrition, having children, staying alive, nature)

Stability (routine, safety, rule of law, predictability)

Relationships (society, nation, community, workplace, family, friends)

Growth (material well-being, economic success, gainful employment)

Joy (entertainment, fun, sports, beauty, learning, amusement)

Belief (religion, spirituality, higher powers, a cause, or something like honest)

Individuality (ownership, privacy, voice, recognition, dignity)

Equality (rights, sharing, fairness)

Looking at the above list, people can easily array these in the order on which they make life’s decisions.  Sometimes an individual’s initial ranking is rather aspirational, however.  Friends and loved ones often are better judges of the actual behaviors. Over time, people start to see where there are gaps between what they want to be and how they really act, and a semi-permanent prioritization emerges.  It turns out these orderings are extremely robust and individual; almost like fingerprints.  Of 2000 randomly sampled Americans, 1750 had completely unique rankings of these eight.  And the remaining 250 shared theirs with only one other person.

I think one reason that Tucker and I can be friends (even though we are nothing alike on any demographic or psychographic measure) is that we happen to share almost identical 8 Great Goods priorities. 

For instance, Relationships is my top priority.  I’ve sacrificed happiness, freedom, wealth, and would gladly put my life at risk for the people I love.  Reading Tucker’s work, you would never think he is a person capable of loyalty or any deep human emotion.  He is not married or even in a long-term relationship. Yet, when you get to know him, you see that he surrounds himself with a group of friends (and even at least one ex-girlfriend) to whom he is fiercely loyal.  He has dropped everything in his professional life and driven across the country to help these friends when they are in need.

So while Tucker exhibits Relationships, Joy, Individuality, etc. in different ways than I might, the order of priority—the way he makes decisions—is the almost the same. And that makes me feel like I understand him; and appreciate him. 

And even when he is being his most obstreperous self, part of me completely gets it—even though most of me wants to duck behind a plant.

My name is John B, and Tucker Max is my friend.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Busting Stereotypes: The Greatest Goods of Asia

I was in Bangkok, on the last night of a whirlwind 8-country/8-day book promoting tour in Asia. I had been meeting potential students for Hult International Business School when I was momentarily distracted. I looked up at numbers that had been projected on a screen, and I was carried away in a kind of analytical reverie. Maybe the numbers meant nothing—well, statistically I was sure they meant nothing—but I couldn’t help trying to make them tell me a story. The numbers I had been seeing on my tour were beginning to turn my views of Asia completely upside down.

The tour involved a seminar in each city, at which I spoke about my new book, Good vs Good. At each stop, I met between 30 and 60 graduate school-aged men and women who were all considering entering a business degree program. Generally, these potential students were natives of the country where I was appearing—not native English speakers. But all spoke enough English to think they could attend an English-language graduate program, and laughed at the appropriate moments of my English-language speech.

Before arriving at the venue, most of the attendees had filled out a questionnaire asking them to rank the Goods below in the order in which they make decisions. Basically, I was asking them to choose if Equality, for instance, would be a more important consideration than Individuality when making a significant choice.

  • Life (health, nutrition, having children, staying alive, nature)
  • Stability (routine, safety, rule of law, predictability)
  • Relationships (society, nation, community, workplace, family, friends)
  • Growth (material well-being, economic success, gainful employment)
  • Joy (entertainment, fun, sports, beauty, learning, amusement)
  • Belief (religion, spirituality, higher powers, a cause, also akin to honesty)
  • Individuality (ownership, privacy, voice, recognition, dignity)
  • Equality (rights, sharing, fairness)

In the research for the book, I had learned that an individual’s prioritization of these 8 Goods is almost like a fingerprint. 90% of those who have completed the survey have completely unique orderings of these Goods. The other 10% share their ordering with only one other person. And this pattern has held regardless of culture or nationality.

But I knew—from some previous national surveys—that even though individuals are very different, those of similar cultural backgrounds tend to cluster around the same set of Goods. The Japanese, for instance, are more likely to emphasize Life and Relationships, while Americans tend to base decisions more on Belief and Individuality.

One of the highlights of each evening’s lecture was unveiling the results of the survey for each particular city. But more important than how attendees ranked their own Goods was how they ranked the Goods of those around them. Let me explain why.

The very first piece of sociological research I ever conducted was for my undergraduate thesis, comparing juvenile delinquency in Japan to the United States. I spent a summer riding with a “violence gang” (the direct translation of “motorcycle gang”) in Tokyo, and I designed and administered a survey to high school students in both countries concerning their propensity to commit wrongful behaviors. In the draft stage of the survey, my advisor had deftly corrected one of my survey questions, which straightforwardly asked participants if they committed illegal acts, like using marijuana. My advisor explained that teenagers were unlikely to admit in a survey that they smoked pot, but if I phrased the question differently I could get a pretty good idea of aggregate behaviors in any given school. He recommended I write the question as: “Out of your ten best friends, how many use marijuana?”

Based on the results I had seen during my Asia book tour, I had come to believe that the question “What are the priorities of those around you” was far more illuminating than “What are your personal priorities.” The “those around you” question was giving me an aggregate view of what each audience thought about their native society. And the results were surprising.

Here’s a list of the cities in which I held seminars (in my travel order), and the top three priorities of “those around” the participants (the percentage of respondents is also noted). So for instance, at the first tour stop, you can see that 33% of my audience in Beijing listed Joy as the top Good of the people around them, while 18% thought Belief and Growth were the top Goods of people around them.

Beijing:  Joy (33%);   Belief (18%);   Growth (18%)

Seoul:  Relationships (27%);   Growth (18%);   Joy (18%)

Tokyo:  Relationships (27%);   Stability (27%);   Life (27%)

Taipei:  Relationships (59%);   Growth (17%);   Stability (8%)

Manila:  Life (44%);   Growth (17%);   Belief (17%)

Singapore:  Stability (30%);   Relationships (30%);   Individuality (30%)

Jakarta:  Growth (35%);   Life (35%);   Joy (12%)

Bangkok:  Relationships (35%);   Growth (17%);   Equality (13%)

You can see that Relationships looms large in these results, as it did in a random sample of 1000 Americans I completed last year, where the ranking of the Goods for “those around you” looked like this: Life (25%), Relationships (21%), Growth (16%), Belief (13%), Joy (9%), Individuality (6%), Stability (5%) and Equality (4%).

But with the exceptions of Taipei and Bangkok where Relationships far outstrip the other contenders percentage-wise, in Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore it’s in a close race with the other top Goods. Book after book written about Asian cultures have noted that Relationships (or depending on your language, gwanxi, konne, gwangye, wongswan, etc.) are the keys to business and life in the region—so no surprises here.

I was, however, interested to see that Life did not rank more highly than it did (in my survey of Americans, Life just nosed out Relationships). Manila was the only Asian city where it was ranked, by far, as the most important Good. But in Jakarta and Tokyo, Life tied for first place on the rankings of “Most Important Good”. Perhaps Life’s lower ranking was because of the average young age of my audiences—most in the crowd had not reached the life stages of parenting and elder-care that can make people value Life more highly.

Still, it was the ranking of the other Goods that I found to be the most surprising. Stability got first place votes in Singapore and Tokyo (the only two developed nations on the trip). Growth, by contrast, was among the top three Goods in all the cities except Tokyo and Singapore. Joy showed up as number one in Beijing, and in the top three in Jakarta and Seoul. Individuality and Equality only showed up once each—in third place for Singapore and Bangkok respectively.

Does this mean that Beijingers are more joyful than Filipinos? I’m not sure I’d go there yet. But it does give me a much different view of Beijing than I’ve ever had before. Ditto Singapore, where Growth didn’t qualify for any of the top three spots (but Individuality did qualify for 3rd place). I was also surprised by the fact that Belief didn’t qualify as a top Good in the only Muslim city on my tour, but it did in Beijing—a bit of mind-twister (my hunch is that maybe survey participants in Beijing were thinking about the honesty definition more than religion, but it certainly begs further digging). Tokyo was the only city that was completely predictable to me.

My analysis of the Goods rankings across all 8 cities has led me to only one conclusion: there is a need for more research. Much more! The numbers have begun to tell a fascinating story, but one with big gaps that only additional data can fill. The initial results are certainly startling enough, however, that they may make people question their stereotypes of certain nations. I’m certainly left questioning my own.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Good vs Good Amazon review: A great neoclassic !

Good vs Good is another of those intellectually radical works from John C Beck, who is not new to surprise us with the quality of his writing.
This book stands out as having an apparently simple approach to the need of alignment and prioritization of those “goods” that would shape a more equitable world, but the core message I could read through the lines, is a fundamental hope of the author of a future that can build on universal foundations, rather than on excuses to be divisive. Filled with examples that accompany the reader through the discovery, the book is actually a radical disruptive model, dipped into a profound philosophical reflection of the author. An excellent read for an excellent journey. Good vs Good starts from the reader and finishes with a new “world order” that cannot but inevitably follow, after that….