After what feels like a year of slog and resistance, the social enterprise camp I’ve been planning has finally come to fruition, with 10 students from the University of Southampton and 10 students from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad paired on a series of business challenges set by 3 innovative social businesses. These challenges are designed not only to help students from both institutions to get a feel for social business in India, but to use these to engage these in debates about the conceptual legitimacy of social business and to challenge sharp distinctions between the “social” and business, especially but not exclusively in developing economies.
This is a highly experimental ( a grave risk of looking foolish prevents me from calling it anything grander) project designed to start students on the journey to becoming what Pamela Hartigan has called “amphibious leadership”. The key dimensions of this form of leadership are a dextrous command of soft power, comfort in multiple geographies and an ability to speak across lines of practical expertise.This is itself based on the idea that leadership is an observable set of practices and not a divine gift or personality trait, and this is clearly a position that is supported by a slew of evidence.
I’d say we need leaders like this not only in the private sector but in the public and third sector, especially as distinctions between all three are increasingly blurred.
As Hartigan acknowledges, universities, business schools and higher education in general is playing catch up to the shifting plates of the global economy and society. There are questions of organisational agility which I’ve written about here) and a widespread inability (and quite possibly reluctance) to retool rapidly or comprehensively enough to offer young people the kind of human development opportunities they need to thrive in the contemporary world.
Hartigan talks specifically about graduates as employees and entrepreneurs but I’d argue there is a wider debate that needs to be had about the dangers of disconnecting work-related skills and abilities from generally human skills and abilities. Some of the elements of soft power she discusses could (and should be) be extended to cultivate empathetic and mindful approaches to human life in the broadest sense, and which are applicable not only to work related outcomes. The New Economics Foundation’s recent research into the potentially radical benefits of making economics speak to ideas of empathy are indicative of a recognition that attributes that were once understood as private, individual (and perhaps even moral) have a important public value which can be extrapolated to the collective macro-level. Similarly, emerging ideas about the impact of private fulfilment on economic productivity challenge dichotomous thinking about the mandate of higher education.
Of course the camp we’re running right now is nothing but an experiment to see what this might look like on a microscopic scale. There’s also no guarantee that the outcomes I’m expecting will be the outcomes which result, but it’s a start.
Further updates and incoherent musings to follow!