Business management doesn’t always have to be about capitalism – this course shows how it can also be a calling

22 01 2023

By Andrew J. Hoffman, Professor of Management & Organizations; Professor of Environment & Sustainability; Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the Ross School of Business and School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan from The Conversation • Reposted: January 22, 2023

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

Title of Course:

“Management as a Calling”

What prompted the idea for the course?

The idea for this course came from my frustration that business schools do not do enough to create successful business leaders with a desire to serve society. All too often, we simply drop an ethics or sustainability elective into a curriculum that puts profits over people – and gives short shrift to big issues such as climate change and income inequality.

So I thought we should develop a course that helps students examine their own ethics, values and purpose. As I point out in my book, rather than simply imparting knowledge, this course helps students develop wisdom. Rather than treating management as a precise science, it adds the liberal arts. I want students to examine their own conscience and decide what kind of a manager they are meant to be, what kind of career they aspire to have and what kind of legacy they hope to leave. 

What does the course explore?

This course helps undergraduate and graduate business majors consider their career as a calling. Ungraded, its core centers on three weekend retreats where students leave their cellphones behind, join others with similar aspirations and examine their unique purpose in life.

The retreats take place at the start and end of their final year of study, and one year after graduation. They involve exercises, readings, collaboration and quiet reflection. At the end, students write a personal mission statement and a plan for fulfilling it.

There are also lectures on the notion of a calling, which for this course I define as a purpose that people truly believe in and will dedicate themselves to wholeheartedly, without qualm or self-interest.

Why is this course relevant now?

When I started teaching business in the mid-1990s, students who wanted to improve the world typically studied government or nonprofit management. Today, many are coming to business school with a sense of purpose to make a positive change.

Unfortunately, business education has not done a good job, in my opinion, of accommodating this demand. Curricula focus far too much on the “how” of business and not enough on the “why.” But if we don’t change that, we will continue to have corporate transgressions like tax avoidancelabor exploitationand fraud, where short-term profit goals are placed above responsibilities to society. 

What’s a critical lesson from the course?

We study what a calling is, techniques for examining each student’s individual calling, and tactics for staying on course. My hope is that students will cultivate a sense of passion and vision in their careers and apply the power of business to address society’s challenges, whether that be equitable pay structures, innovations to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions, collaborations to support government’s role in the market and new definitions of the role of the corporation in serving the interests of all in society.

What materials does the course feature?

Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl.

Life on Purpose” by Victor J. Strecher.

Articles by Parker PalmerHerbert ShepardDavid Foster-WallaceDeb Meyersonand others.

What will the course prepare students to do?

This course will help students develop a vision of what a calling is, what their calling is and a desire to make its pursuit a lifelong goal. Rather than thinking only in terms of a job, I hope students will imagine the role they want to play in business to create a future that serves not just shareholders, but all of society – employees, customers, the community and the world.

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