Do MBA Programs Create Leaders? Don’t Ask Harvard

Sure, MBA programs train the future leaders of corporate America. Toga party leaders apparently, according to a New York Times front page article on Harvard Business School, or HBS. The article ostensibly focused on the attempts of HBS to introduce gender equity into its widely admired MBA program, but the buzz it created centered less around the details of the program and more on saucier things like sex, power and money.

I guess power and money shouldn’t surprise anyone when we talk about those selected for the most prestigious business schools, but stories about brilliant young women being pressured to dress and act like characters in Real Housewives of New Jersey do. Here are some highlights:

  • There is an ultra-secret society at HBS called SECTION X where the ultra-rich and ultra-cool gather. Mostly men, but being ultra-secret they didn’t return my phone calls to confirm or deny this. Getting the favorable attention of the club – which is centered on international partying, not Aristotelian notions of business ethics – obsesses many men and women at HBS.
  • Women are treated poorly. Very, very poorly. Students and untenured professors alike. Stories are told of male students “hazing” new female professors with obnoxious, aggressive questioning.
  • The program has resulted in women’s grades improving and better evaluations for female professors – but no one takes the results very seriously: “The grade gap had vaporized so fast that no one could quite say how it had happened,” wrote the Times, with the clear implication that most students felt the results had been manipulated by administrators.
  • Not all women are on board with the efforts to eradicate sexism at HBS – many are, but stories surfaced of women dressing as Playboy bunnies at parties, or spending more time looking for a husband during their two years in Cambridge than novel insights into the corners of business theory.

In fairness to HBS, I have never attended nor taught a class there (and after this, probably never will). Also, the Times has been known to sensationalize a story or two before (remember the Duke lacrosse case?) if it fits into the common Times narrative that social life at elitist schools is inherently, well, elitist. All this stuff might be overblown and if so, I apologize. But there is too much in what seems to be a well-researched story given the front page, above-the-fold, Sunday paper treatment to dismiss it out of hand.

Why should you care about the machinations of the elite of the elite who attend HBS, you are thinking? Future Death Lizards, right? Because they – and those who graduate from MBA programs aspiring to be Harvard – someday might be your CEO, or the lead consultant on a change process in your department. And God help us all if this is the norm in Harvard or other top schools.

I understand if character strength and values training aren’t at the core of the curriculum – it is not divinity school, after all – but should all remotely recognizable human virtues such as trust and respect for others, including women, be so blatantly ignored? I don’t think so. As I have written before on these pages, the best organizations are those with a core set of human values that include treating everyone with respect, and those values need to be modeled from the top.

Good luck learning that at Harvard.