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In the second-year elective The Moral Leader, students read and discuss a wide selection of literary sources, confronting complex moral challenges and developing the analytical skills and judgment that will be required of them as business leaders. In the course of intense discussion, students are often blindsided by their classmates’ differing interpretation of characters or situations. In other words, your Antigone may not be my Antigone.

“The most important thing that leaders need to know how to do is understand individual people and groups and their differences,” says HBS professor of management practice Sandra Sucher, who teaches a section of the course. “It’s all about engaging the ‘other,’ and leaders can be notoriously poor at separating out their own perception from the way that other people might see things.”

Sucher recently added a new component: a trip to Harvard Art Museums (HAM), where Director of Education Ray Williams and Senior Museum Educator Corinne Zimmermann lead the students in a guided exercise that draws on the museum’s diverse collection to reinforce and expand upon aha moments from the classroom. For Williams, the task was to design a museum experience that would complement the students’ discussion of The Sweet Hereafter by novelist Russell Banks. In his story of a deadly school bus accident told from four points of view, Banks depicts the complications that arise when media and out-of-town lawyers descend on a small, grief-stricken town in upstate New York.

“Our goal was to use the encounters with works of art to help students become more aware of how their emotional responses and past experiences can color their interpretation of a complex situation,” says Williams.

In one exercise, students are asked to select a work of art that reminds them of the novel. “Two students chose a Picasso painting of a mother and child, but they had very different ideas of what the painting meant,” says Sucher.

“The work of art is a metaphoric parallel to a complex situation that you might encounter in professional life,” Williams remarks. To that end, HAM already offers customized learning experiences to members of the Boston medical community. And a new student field study by Clive Chang (HBS ’11), Inessa Lurye (HKS/HBS ’13), and Mary Winn New (HBS ’11) makes a case for how and why HAM should offer customized learning experiences to executive education programs and other members of the business community.

“Our research shows that experiential learning programs for adults in museum settings are an emerging market,” says New, who learned of The Moral Leader exercise through friends. “Once I met with Ray, and attended a workshop, I saw how powerful the experience was and wanted to help expand its reach,” she adds. By the team’s estimates, HAM could bring in at least $30,000 in annual revenues by targeting the business market, even given the smaller (8 to 15-person) groups considered ideal for learning. “The biggest draw for me was the opportunity to combine my interest in the arts with my business background,” says New. “I saw how a business mindset could help the museum grow their revenue, but also how the museum experience could help business leaders reflect on challenging topics through art.”

“It’s a given of leadership that you must be good at engaging with other people as individuals,” says Sucher, who served as faculty adviser to the field study team. “Yet it’s hard to find venues that help you do that. It happens in case discussions, but the experience through visual art is even more immediate.”

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