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I Tried to Teach Harvard Business Students to Be Less Selfish. Here’s What Happened.

"Students have to be bought in"

Harvard Business School has it all: prestigious alumni, award-winning faculty, top-tier job placement, Ivy League pedigree, and famous case methods.

But at one point, the famous business school was missing something on its resume: students who cared about others as much as they cared about themselves.

To Tom DeLong, a renowned HBS professor of over 25 years, the curriculum at the business school needed to change.

Students were too self-focused. They needed to learn how to be more vulnerable, more authentic, and how to listen more than talk.

So Tom set out to change the way students studied the human side of business.

What followed was a case study in how (not) to approach change and influence behavior–a humbling lesson for the professor who had spent the last 25 years studying and teaching those very things.

I sat down with the Baker Foundation Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School to talk about his biggest decision of the last ten years: changing the curriculum at the Harvard Business School.

You can read our full conversation below or watch it on our YouTube channel.


What was the biggest decision you've made in the last ten years?

I wanted to change the curriculum at the Harvard Business School. I was unhappy with the product. I wanted our students to be more interested in other people and to be more selfless.

That's an ambitious goal. How did you come to that decision?

I've been teaching at HBS for 25 years, and throughout that time, I've been worried that our students were too self oriented. They weren't concerned about other people. So I said, is there a way in our curriculum to focus more on the human side of the enterprise?

I talked to the dean, and he asked me to take on an assignment. He said to take what we teach in our elective course, The Authentic Leader, and introduce it to all 900 students. Like how to be more vulnerable, more authentic, and how to listen more than you talk. He said that was how I could make the biggest difference and have a real legacy at HBS.

So he asked you to take this elective course that you'd been teaching to second year students and scale it to every student in Harvard Business School?

Exactly. He wanted me to create a course that would be in the required curriculum for all 900 students.

So how did it go?

I don't like to see things as failures. I like to see things more as learning experiences. But if I had to classify anything as a failure, this was a failure. I came up short.

The thing that I wanted to do more than anything else was to create a context for all of these 900 students to have a different kind of experience.

About three weeks into the course, a number of the students started to rebel and started to say things like, I didn't come to the business school to learn about the human dimension. I didn't come here to learn how to be more self aware. I came here to learn about proprietary trading, how to go into private equity, and how to join a hedge fund.

So they had a very different take on what they wanted, and it was just enough to sabotage the course, which ended up falling apart.

How did it unravel?

Students just didn't come to class. When we put them in small groups, they would basically say in small groups of six, why are we doing this? This is a waste of my time. I'm paying all this money to come here. And this feeling started to permeate the whole curriculum–the whole campus.

If you were to do this again, what would you have done differently?

One of the business philosophies that we teach here is about supply and demand. I do believe that we should have kept this course as an elective. That way we could build up the demand and students would get a chance to select into it as opposed to being forced into it.

The number one mistake I made was saying yes to this. A dear friend asked me to do it, and my ego was too big to say no. I thought, if I can do this, I'm going to become the hero because no one else has been able to do this.

But I missed my shot on a number of dimensions. And that's ironic, because I know better. I'm a social scientist. I consult with organizations, and yet I wasn't taking my own medicine.

One of my students used to say to other students that the greatest form of self care is to be able to say no. And at this point in my lifetime, I should know that.

So If I were to do this again, I would create a longer time frame. Instead of saying I would do this in six months, I would create a much longer tail. I would get the students more involved to try to create more inclusion. And I would talk a lot more with the faculty about what the implications were for this.

So it sounds like you'd apply a number of classic leadership or management axioms.

Well, it's one thing when you get friends involved, but it's another thing when you are so caught up in your own ego that you don't ask for support. Here I am–teaching people how to be more self aware–that the cobbler's kids didn't have shoes. I was a living example of that.

Every semester, I ask our students to write down a time they needed support and didn't ask for it. And they're stunned by the number of examples. So here I was, quite the example of my own teaching.

Was there any silver lining in this experience for you?

Yeah, number one, I was humbled. Number two, we pared back the course. We kept it, but as an elective. And the interest in the course has increased year after year. Now, two thirds of the student body, which is 900 students, ranks this course as number one. It's got great demand, and they're signing up for it. They're making the choice to take it. So this whole notion of agency is just absolutely paramount. I could go on and on about that.

What advice do you have for any ambitious overachievers out there?

Take a step back and ask yourself: do I measure everything in terms of either or? Do I tell myself, either I was a great success or I was a failure?

I see this over and over again. So I want to ask these high achievers, do you have the ability to live your life with fours and sixes? And not overreact one way or the other? When you overreact, everyone else has to respond and adapt based on what mood you're in. You need to be more even keeled. You need to be more observant of your own behavior as opposed to moving from one to ten.

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