Defining our purpose as leaders

Publication date: 08 January 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

Speaking at AMBA’s global conference, Peter Tufano argued the need for MBAs to become masters of social change

Business Schools and MBAs need to share a purpose of being masters of social change, according to Peter Tufano, Dean of Said Business School at the University of Oxford.

Speaking at AMBA’s Global Conference earlier this year, he said: 'My School preaches about purpose all the time but what does that mean? We explain to businesses what they need to do but what do we need to do? What is our purpose?‘You can’t address a question about purpose without asking “where are we now?” What exactly are we telling businesses about their purpose? What does this mean for us? What should be our purpose? What questions can we ask when we get back home?’

But he added: ‘We have the power to ask questions.’

Quoting A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, Tufano compared the current global climate to that of Dickens’ opening paragraph: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’

He said: ‘That is a fair description of where we find ourselves right now.’


‘We’re hardwired to expect bad things to happen. But in fact, we’re living in the best of all times’


Tufano outlined three current business books that demonstrate the present time to be ‘the best’. 

‘Abundance, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, has the fundamental premise that the world is in a great place and will be even better with technology,' he explained.

Meanwhile,'Factfulness by Anna Rosling Rönnlund and Ola Rosling asserts that we are completely ignorant of the fact that crime is down, literacy is up, life expectancy is up, [the number of ] those who die in armed conflict is down. We’re hardwired to expect bad things to happen. But in fact, we’re living in the best of all times.’

He added: ‘Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker, makes an articulate case that the power of enlightenment can save us... having said that, not everyone agrees.’

Tufano outlined what he described as ‘a far more disturbing report’ which comes from the future of humanity institute at the University of Oxford.

It has ascertained 12 risks to human civilisation that could destroy humanity: extreme climate change; super-volcanos; ecological catastrophes; nuclear war; a global systems collapse; synthetic biology; global pandemics; a major asteroid impact; nanotechnology; artificial intelligence; unknown consequences; and future bad global governance.

‘Threats to humanity and the planet are ample,’ said Tufano. ‘If you read all these together, there’s an interesting intersection. It’s not that the technology is a problem but in the wrong hands it can destroy humanity. In the wrong hands what could happen to some of these technologies? We’re in a pretty precarious place.’

Bringing the conversation back to business, Tufano discussed Oxford alumnus Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776. 


‘How can you expect young business people to address problems if they don’t know what they are?’


‘This is the manifesto of capitalism and has been held up by economists for five decades as the seminal piece of work,’ he said. ‘But Smith also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1789. It’s about what we owe to one another. If you read these two books in conjunction, you’ll see the best of times and the worst of times.

‘We’re constrained by the forces of competition but also by the moral imperative of responsibilities that we have to one another. So what advice would we give to businesses?

‘Take care of your shareholders and your employees and the supply chain. You have to take care of others and these are the involuntary stakeholders. We have to take care of the people that might be inadvertently touched by our businesses. They might be in communities far away from us or be in our community but not see themselves in as stakeholders of our business. They might be the grandchildren of people alive today; our waste might destroy their soil or water. These are hard to think about.’

In short, Tufano championed the positive contributions that can be made in order to ‘leave our world better than we found it’.

He added: ‘We’re in the business of education. I would argue we have broader responsibilities to advance our teaching about four things: the macro forces impacting society; collective responsibility; businesses responsibility for the misuse of their products; creating social change. I’m talking about teaching students about environment, equity, equality, geopolitics in required courses.

‘We talk about global opportunities and threats. How can you expect young business people to address problems if they don’t know what they are? They tend to address problems that they understand. If we don’t teach them about issues in the world such as technology, privacy and health – how can we expect them to do anything?’

Tufano challenged delegates to consider how much of the MBA curriculum deals with individuals, teams and organisations adding: ‘Complexity increases exponentially as we go from individuals to teams to organisations. This is an interesting audit for you to look at.’

But he said: ‘I’d argue we’ve missed the boat because we’ve forgotten about systems. When we consider systems, it’s much more complicated. If you want to design a course that students will like, do not design a course around systems. Its complex and messy and there are no PowerPoint answers. But it’s the most important thing you have to teach.

‘Business Schools need to offer “mastery of social change” in our MBA programmes: the pursuit of opportunities beyond the resources under our control.

‘How can we tell businesses that they’re responsible for big complicated things if we don’t teach them what the issues are and help them develop the skill sets they can need to tackle them. In saying that, MBAs are not patient. They want immediate results. We’re not talking days and weeks; we're talking years and decades.

‘This is not social entrepreneurship. This is not about small organisations trying to change the world. This is about systems.’

He concluded: ‘We can’t always get to the outcomes but we can always ask the difficult questions. If we all do this, we can take our profession forward a bit.’