Sunday, January 06, 2019

The Mischaracterization of Harvard Business School

When Vanity Fair ran its recent piece, “The Miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg” by Duff McDonald, a number of friends sent me links to the piece, asking for my reactions to his criticisms of her and my alma mater, Harvard Business School, which he described as producing “corporate monsters” who “lack a functional moral compass”. I have always been quite open about and proud of my time at school (for a while, when I had more time, I even ran a blog called “Ask The Harvard MBA”) so I resolved to read the article with an open mind and then offer my reactions.

After reading the article and revisiting some of my experiences at HBS (more on this later), my conclusion is that McDonald mischaracterizes and misinterprets both the general approach of the case study method, and the specific case of “The Parable of the Sadhu”. It is certainly possible and probably valuable to write a thoughtful critique of how Harvard Business School influences the moral compass and ethical practices of its alumni. This isn't it. Whether McDonald's misinterpretation is genuine or malicious, I cannot say, but it is definitely shoddy journalism.

There are many parts of the piece that illustrate McDonald's biased view of Harvard Business School's attempts to help its students engage with ethics, but one of the clearest appears in his discussion of “The Parable of the Sadhu”. Here is what McDonald writes about this famous ethics essay (which is also used by organizations such as the Red Cross):

“McCoy was on a trip to the Himalayas when his expedition encountered a sadhu, or holy man, near death from hypothermia and exposure. Their compassion extended only to clothing the man and leaving him in the sun, before continuing on to the summit. One of McCoy’s group saw a “breakdown between the individual ethic and the group ethic,” and was gripped by guilt that the climbers had not made absolutely sure that the sadhu made it down the mountain alive. McCoy’s response: “Here we are . . . at the apex of one of the most powerful experiences of our lives. . . . What right does an almost naked pilgrim who chooses the wrong trail have to disrupt our lives?”

McCoy later felt guilt over the incident, but his parable nevertheless illustrated the extent to which aspiring managers might justify putting personal accomplishment ahead of collateral damage—including the life of a dying man. The fact that H.B.S. enthusiastically incorporated said parable into its curriculum says far more about the fundamental mindset of the school than almost anything else that has come out of it. The “dilemma” was perfectly in line with the thinking at H.B.S. that an inability to clearly delineate the right choice in business isn’t the fault of the chooser but rather a fundamental characteristic of business, itself.”

“The Parable of the Sadhu” was part of the curriculum during my time as well, but I believe that McDonald misinterprets the teaching goal of the case. His misinterpretation deviates so far from the actual words of the essay that I believe that it is quite possible that McDonald never bothered to read the very text that he places at the center of his argument, which would represent irresponsible clickbait journalism.

McCoy wrote his essay to illustrate the importance of having a moral compass, since moral dilemmas can present themselves unexpectedly, and in conjunction with a variety of conflicting imperatives.

First, the way McCoy encounters the sadhu is that a group of four backpackers from New Zealand finds the holy man lying on the ice, then carries him back and dump him on McCoy's expedition, arguing that since his expedition has porters and Sherpas, they are better able to care for the invalid. The New Zealanders then press on. McCoy's expedition clothes the sadhu, and McCoy, worried about his history of altitude sickness, hikes on ahead, leaving a friend and a Sherpa to deal with the sadhu. He learns later that after a Japanese expedition refused to lend their horse to transport the sadhu, and after the Sherpa guide decided that the porters didn't have time to transport the sadhu all the way to safety and catch up with the rest of the expedition before the snows melted and made the path impassable, that the porters had carried the sadhu as far as they though prudent (within 500 feet of a shelter hut) and left him there, now conscious, clothed, and with food and drink.

Already, we can see that this is a more complex question than McDonald relates, and that McDonald minimizes the actual help provided. But the real difference is that McCoy devotes the majority of the essay to examining the moral failings that led to the potential death of the sadhu, rather than “justifying putting personal accomplishment ahead of collateral damage.”

McCoy actually writes about the dilemma from a variety of ethical lenses, which leads him to conclude the opposite of what McDonald ascribes to him. For example, McCoy writes:

“Real moral dilemmas are ambiguous, and many of us hike right through them, unaware that they exist. When, usually after the fact, someone makes an issue of one, we tend to resent his or her bringing it up. Often, when the full import of what we have done (or not done) hits us, we dig into a defensive position from which it is very difficult to emerge. In rare circumstances, we may contemplate what we have done from inside a prison.”

Are these the words of a man trying to justify his decision based on personal accomplishment? Or of a man trying to get MBA students to realize that failing to consider the moral implications of their actions can lead to severe consequences?

McDonald's approach is to cherry pick a few passages to support his argument, rather than fairly representing the text which he criticizes. McCoy's argument is that ethical dilemmas present hard choices, can come at any time, and that if you're not prepared to engage with them, you may end up making decisions without realizing it, or that when individuals in a group refuse to take personal responsibility, the entire group may end up shirking theirs.

In fact, McCoy even explicitly states the point of his essay in its conclusion:

“That is the lesson of the sadhu. In a complex corporate situation, the individual requires and deserves the support of the group. When people cannot find such support in their organizations, they don't know how to act. If such support is forthcoming, a person has a stake in the success of the group and can add much to the process of establishing and maintaining a corporate culture. Management's challenge is to be sensitive to individual needs, to shape them, and to direct and focus them for the benefit of the group as a whole.”

I find it hard to square what I see as the meaning of McCoy's words with McDonald's interpretation, which is that “the “dilemma” was perfectly in line with the thinking at H.B.S. that an inability to clearly delineate the right choice in business isn’t the fault of the chooser but rather a fundamental characteristic of business, itself.”

In contrast, I interpret McCoy's words as saying that businesses and leaders have a moral obligation to support individual employees, rather than pushing all moral responsibility to the individual level. That may indicate that the individual isn't solely responsible or at fault, but that is the opposite of saying that there is no right answer, and that all choices are morally equivalent.

Indeed, had McDonald actually read “The Parable of the Sadhu,” he might have been able to use its teachings to illuminate and underscore Facebook's ethical failures in a fairer and more convincing way.

If you asked me how Harvard Business School influences the ethics and moral compass of its students, I would answer that it tries to get them to grapple with different situations and ways of thinking in an attempt to help them be more explicit and thoughtful about those ethics, but that it doesn't try to prescribe a single way of thinking or tell you the right answer. In that sense, it is no different than any other great college or university. Sometimes, its graduates leave as ethical paragons with high-performing moral compasses. Sometimes, its graduates go on to infamy, like Jeff Skilling. McDonald's own alma mater is the University of Pennsylvania, from which he earned a Finance degree, a distinction that he now shares with President Donald Trump.

21 comments:

Duff McDonald said...

While I would normally thank someone who took the time to write such a lengthy response to something I wrote, I stumble on the following:

1. You suggest that I might have written the column for "malicious" reasons. Sorry, that I might have "maliciously misinterpreted" the case method. Uh, go fu*k yourself. I write what I believe and I come by those beliefs the way all serious people do.
2. You suggest that I did not actually read The Parable of the Sadhu, because...you disagree with what I had to say about it. Again, go fu*k yourself.
3. You resort, in a final flourish, to saying, from what I can tell, "Nah Nah Nah Nah, you went to Wharton, and...Donald Trump!" As if....I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. We're not talking about me. We're talking about one of the most celebrated recent graduates of HBS being revealed as an ethical black hole. Which is not the first time, and it won't be the last.

The problem with HBS graduates is that you all think that criticism of your behavior must come from a place of envy, maliciousness, or ignorance. If you can get your ego out of the way, you might be able to read the piece for what it is, which is a considered rumination on a persistent problem. You can tell us all you want about how wonderful the teaching of ethics is at HBS. And then we can go to the historical record. And then intelligent people can decide for themselves. If you'd rather accuse me of maliciousness and ignorance, then you can...go fu*k yourself.

Thanks for reading.

Chris said...

Duff,

While I appreciate that you took the time to read my criticism and respond to it, I think that you may wish to rethink the tenor of your response. I engaged on issues of substance, and you are free to offer your thoughts, complete with citations from the texts, as to why your interpretation is more correct than mine. Foul language and ad hominem attacks (which contrast with my approach) are unlikely to be persuasive.

Anonymous said...

"McDonald's own alma mater is the University of Pennsylvania, from which he earned a Finance degree, a distinction that he now shares with President Donald Trump." is a textbook ad hominem attack. Just sayin.

Anonymous said...

Also, pivoting this into a Wharton vs. HBS debate misses the entire point and only strengthens McDonald's argument. To be fair, he falls short by making it an "HBS thing". A more meaningful inquiry is one into business education in general...

Chris said...

Anonymous,

Since McDonald's thesis is that a business school should be responsible for the moral compass of its alumni, I think it is not an ad hominem attack to point out that Donald Trump is a Wharton graduate.

Phil Buchanan said...

I, for one, kind of enjoyed Mr. McDonald's reply. I also recommend his very well researched book, The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite. Like the article about Sandberg, the book includes some tough critiques of HBS. As a Class of 2000 graduate myself, I think the critique is healthy -- even if I don't agree with every word of it.

Chris: You argue that, when it comes to teaching about ethics, HBS "is no different than any other great college or university." I don't think so and, even if that were true, I am not sure that is the right standard to set.

I think that, in some key respects, HBS has not lived up to its responsibilities. For one thing, it has failed to imbue sufficient humility in its graduates. For another, at least when we there, dissent was squelched (by some) in a way that runs counter to what I believe the culture should be at an academic institution. (A personal anecdote: when I wrote an op ed in the Harbus at the end of first year lamenting that there was virtually no discussion of gender or race in the workplace in the entire Required Curriculum, I was summoned by one of the administrative deans. She told me she was "disappointed" in me. She made no effort to seriously consider my critique or perspective.)

And there’s more, of course, and more serious concerns. In his book, McDonald makes a convincing case that HBS has played a role in some of the more disturbing developments in modern American capitalism. This, for what it's worth, is a view shared even by some HBS faculty and many graduates. Ross Sorkin of the New York Times described the book in this way: “[A] richly reported indictment of the school as a leading reason that corporate America is disdained by much of the country....in example after example, Mr. McDonald sets out his thesis that money and influence have distorted both the school’s curriculum and the worldview espoused by its professors.”

My view is HBS doesn't need more defenders: it has plenty, and they’re a pretty powerful crew. It would benefit, instead, from more healthy critique and debate about its societal role and obligations.

Nothing in McDonald’s work – at least that I have seen -- suggests to me that his work stems from any “malicious” place and, honestly, it shouldn’t surprise you that your characterization of his work as such provoked the reply it did.

Phil Buchanan, HBS Class of 2000 (Section K)

Chris said...

Phil! It's great to hear from you. Let me respond point by point below:

"I, for one, kind of enjoyed Mr. McDonald's reply. I also recommend his very well researched book, The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite. Like the article about Sandberg, the book includes some tough critiques of HBS. As a Class of 2000 graduate myself, I think the critique is healthy -- even if I don't agree with every word of it."

> I would agree that critique of business education is healthy; I just think that McDonald's article in this case rested on misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise, of specific texts.

"Chris: You argue that, when it comes to teaching about ethics, HBS "is no different than any other great college or university." I don't think so and, even if that were true, I am not sure that is the right standard to set.

I think that, in some key respects, HBS has not lived up to its responsibilities. For one thing, it has failed to imbue sufficient humility in its graduates. For another, at least when we there, dissent was squelched (by some) in a way that runs counter to what I believe the culture should be at an academic institution. (A personal anecdote: when I wrote an op ed in the Harbus at the end of first year lamenting that there was virtually no discussion of gender or race in the workplace in the entire Required Curriculum, I was summoned by one of the administrative deans. She told me she was "disappointed" in me. She made no effort to seriously consider my critique or perspective.)"

> I agree that HBS should hold itself to a higher standard than it does. My response to McDonald is not to say that HBS is perfect, merely that it doesn't specifically deserve to be singled out. HBS fails to imbue its graduates with humility; my only other personal experience is with my time at Stanford, but I think that most universities like to stroke the ego of its students. I also agree that HBS itself is run like a business rather than a democracy; I had my own run-in with the school because of my own Harbus op-eds criticizing a specific General Management instructor. I was asked to meet with the Deans, as well as with Clay Christensen, who was then head of the 1st year GM program. We had a civil discussion, and agreed to disagree. No further action was taken. To me, that is an illustration that the system works, and that the administration had a point of view, but that it allowed its students to criticize that point of view.

"And there’s more, of course, and more serious concerns. In his book, McDonald makes a convincing case that HBS has played a role in some of the more disturbing developments in modern American capitalism. This, for what it's worth, is a view shared even by some HBS faculty and many graduates. Ross Sorkin of the New York Times described the book in this way: “[A] richly reported indictment of the school as a leading reason that corporate America is disdained by much of the country....in example after example, Mr. McDonald sets out his thesis that money and influence have distorted both the school’s curriculum and the worldview espoused by its professors.”"

> This may very well be true; I haven't read McDonald's book, only his Vanity Fair piece, which is why I confined my response to that piece.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2....

Chris said...

PART 2: CONTINUED

"My view is HBS doesn't need more defenders: it has plenty, and they’re a pretty powerful crew. It would benefit, instead, from more healthy critique and debate about its societal role and obligations."

> I think that defending the truth against misinterpretation is always worthwhile, even if entity being defended is rich and powerful. Justice does not depend on an income test. I also agree that more healthy critique and debate would be a positive; do you feel that the Vanity Fair piece represented that healthy critique and debate? To me, even its position (HBS should be more carefully scrutinized) is correct, its lack of principle (based on the blatant misinterpretation of readily available texts) disqualifies it from meeting that standard.

"Nothing in McDonald’s work – at least that I have seen -- suggests to me that his work stems from any “malicious” place and, honestly, it shouldn’t surprise you that your characterization of his work as such provoked the reply it did."

> The definition of malicious, among others, is intending to do harm. I believe that McDonald, intentionally or unintentionally, misinterpreted texts and events with the intention of harming both Sheryl Sandberg and HBS. You may feel that those parties deserve to be harmed; my point is just that we should hold all arguments to a standard of truth, whether or not we agree with them. Thanks again for taking the time to write in!

Phil Buchanan said...

Thanks for responding. I don't see McDonald as malicious, no. I think he's raising important points, in both the article and the book, and they resonate with my own experience.

Chris said...

Phil,

I think the work of holding HBS accountable is important, and I am glad that people are doing it. I just want them to do it in the right way, with arguments that don't rely on misinterpretation (malicious or otherwise).

Chris said...

One additional point that a Wharton/HBS alum sent to me via email (he prefers not to engage in online debates):

"I think a flaw in McDonald’s argument, as well as Buchanan’s, is that they both may be confusing correlation with causality. HBS grads are disproportionately represented in high power positions. Even if HBS grads are statistically “more ethical” (however one would measure or define this) than the overall “manager” population, it could just be that statistically it’ll be easier to find more HBS grads making “questionable” decisions because the number of HBS grads in those positions is disproportionately large (and NOT because they were trained at HBS to make such “questionable” choices). Anyhow, just a thought I had as I read all of this."

To back up that point, it's important to note that HBS is the largest major business school, and has by far the most living alumni.

Anonymous said...

uh, when the administration appears to systematically stifle dissent, as illustrated by both your and Phil's anecdotes, maybe the answer to the correlation / causation argument isn't so black and white. further, in 1998-2000, some of the most heralded rock stars parading around campus were the ENRON mgmt team (crooks) and Dennis Kozlowski (crook). yes, in a big town, you're always going to have bad apples, but maybe the system -- and what is celebrates -- is actually (partly) causing the problem in this case?

also, if "HBS grads are disproportionately represented in high power positions", shouldn't the school disproportionately skew the curriculum towards teaching those grads to do the right thing? hell, in business parlance, isn't that just good risk management?

more broadly, perhaps the correlation/causation argument is just an MBA smokescreen for the notion that maybe business education, and neoliberalism for that matter, just might be broken and causing more harm than good right now?

My Agapic Life said...

Interesting analysis Chris, had I not known the full Sadhu story and I read this article I could have easily reached an unfair conclusion. And it is one of the main legs his article stands on.

I found the Antleby story illuminating and wish I knew more. And I think that at some level a meta reality of elite institutions having heralded alumni like Sandberg who is at best a questionable leader at this point is worthy of discussion to understand whether the approach of the institution has something or anything to do with it.

And while I love you to pieces the Trump comment at the end of your piece was an unnecessary low blow, pointing out a common fact (most models spit out people and things to be proud of and not), that minimizes the impact of what you wrote.

Ironically, Wharton happens to be my alma matter and interestingly we read HBS case studies numerous times!

But his article wasn't a critique of Wharton. It was a critique (albeit fairly pointed out to be relatively incomplete) of HBS. So Trump or anyone else's graduation from that isn't what's on the table for analysis.

My Agapic Life said...

And McDonald's response does not demonstrate an actual interest in dialog, which is a missed opportunity. It comes off as taking what you wrote personally.

Will Randolph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Randolph said...

Hey Phil Buchanan, did you enjoy the first time Duf McDonald launched his initial f-bomb attack at Chris Yeh or the second time...or the third time? Glad to see Chris taking the high road. Duf McDonald seems to reveal himself to be an insecure, troubled person given his bizarre rant in response to a simple blog post. The loss of civility in online discourse continues unabated.

Here's hoping Mr. McDonald can tame his inner demons and rise to the level of common courtesy and civility that would make his family proud. Good luck to him in that endeavor if he's bold enough to try.

I fully agree with My Agapic Life. Opportunity missed.

Will Randolph

Jeff Ellis said...
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Jeff Ellis said...
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John K said...

There is enough ambiguity in the Parable of Sadhu case study that I reckon a majority of readers can get out of it what they want.

McDonald argues that HBS picks a strange example of an ethical dilemma in a situation that many people would view as not being an ethical dilemma at all. McDonald is right, though if we delved further into details of the case he could make a stronger argument that HBS ought to reflect on whether having a case study like this is imparting the right lessons to the future leaders of Corporate America.

Here are two problematic examples from the case:
(1) McCoy writes -"As an investment banker, I am continually warned by well-meaning lawyers, clients and associates to be wary of conflicts of interest. Yet if I were to run away from every difficult situation, I wouldn't be an effective investment banker." {p 5 of case}.

Comment: McCoy thereby urges HBS students to not see conflicts of interest as black and white issues if they want to be investment bankers.

(2) McCoy in the concluding paragraph asks:
"Should I pause to help every derelict I pass on the street each night as I walk past the Yale Club en route to Grand Central Station?" {p 7 of case}

Comment: By making reference to "every derelict" McCoy in his conclusion redefines the question of the case. This rephrasing of the question dehumanizes the person in question and allows the reader who wants to be a banker like McCoy (and to ignore conflicts of interest when its in the business interest as McCoy suggests) to follow McCoy's logic and justify no action.

I am sure that HBS students have a debate on the right course of action, though if McDonald is correct at HBS an emphasis on doing the right thing seems to be discouraged. This case would be consistent with that.

A PDF of the case itself is here:
http://dhensley.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/parable-of-sadhu.pdf

Chris Yeh said...

John,

Thanks for coming to the discussion with citations from the text, and encouraging readers (as I did in the original post) to read the underlying text of the Parable of the Sadhu.

While I disagree with your interpretations of McCoy's words, I am glad that you bring them up.

The first sentence you cite is the following:

"As an investment banker, I am continually warned by well-meaning lawyers, clients and associates to be wary of conflicts of interest. Yet if I were to run away from every difficult situation, I wouldn't be an effective investment banker."

You argue that McCoy urges HBS students not to see conflicts of interest as black and white issues if they wish to be investment bankers. I think the critical nuance is that McCoy urges students not to see *every* conflict of interest as a black and white issue.

Conflict of interest is a term that you could apply to everything from "I'm robbing my clients blind by giving them bad advice" to "If I help Google issue a bond, then I can't do the same for Microsoft unless I drop Google as a client." The first is clearly immoral, while the second seems (at least to me) to be a judgment call that a banker should make in consultation with his or her client. In the second case, the issue is not morality, it is how the client relationships will be affected by one's actions.

The second sentence you cite is the following:

"Should I pause to help every derelict I pass on the street each night as I walk past the Yale Club en route to Grand Central Station?"

You argue: "By making reference to "every derelict" McCoy in his conclusion redefines the question of the case. This rephrasing of the question dehumanizes the person in question and allows the reader who wants to be a banker like McCoy (and to ignore conflicts of interest when its in the business interest as McCoy suggests) to follow McCoy's logic and justify no action."

While I don't support McCoy's use of the word "derelict," it is important to note that "The Parable of the Sadhu" was written in 1983.

First, the term "homeless" was not generally used in its current sense until after the publication of this essay, with some scholars pointing to 1985 as the year in which that usage first became common (https://homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/attachments/FindingHome_Full.pdf). McCoy doesn't use "derelict" in place of "homeless" in order to dehumanize; it was one of several terms that people used, and was probably considered more polite than "hobo" or "bum."

Second, in 1983, the city of New York was far, far different from today. Violent crime in New York peaked in 1990; by 1983, the number of murders that took place in the city was about triple what it was in 1960.

Again, I don't think McCoy made his point very well with his language; mentioning the Yale Club is particularly egregious, considering how it is synonymous with wealth and privilege (Tom Wolfe even mentions it in "Bonfire of the Vanities"). But he asks a question that presages today's concept of extreme altruism: Do we have a moral obligation to help every person in need whom we observe?

It may be, John, that you rent the least expensive room you can, survive on $10/day, and donate the rest of your income to pay for anti-malaria bed nets in Africa. There is a legitimate argument that this is the best way to save as many lives as possible. But I would not feel comfortable saying that everyone has a moral obligation to live that way.

Again, the key is McCoy's use of the word "every." He is clearly using that word to indicate that he believes that moral questions aren't always easy to answer. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to engage with such questions. We all have to wrestle with these questions in our lives, not just investment bankers, and we don't always succeed.

Clipping Path said...

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