In an Age of Upheaval, MBA Programs Help Students Navigate Geopolitics

Current volatility has heightened the need for business leaders who can influence the global rules of the game

From vaccine nationalism to the US-China decoupling and climate change negotiations, geopolitical tensions are rising, leaving businesses in the line of fire. Business schools are responding to the disintegration of the global post-war order by placing much greater emphasis on geopolitics in the MBA curriculum, as they seek to train future leaders who can navigate the link between the public and private sectors and politics.

Among other academics across the globe, Mike Rosenberg teaches geopolitics on the MBA course at IESE Business School in Barcelona. “We are living at an incredibly interesting time in human history, and I think our job as educators is to prepare our students for that,” he says. “What I try to teach them is to understand the complexity of the current situation and how things can be both better and worse at the same time.”

A big part of his approach is helping students to grasp the sweep of history in order to put the present context into perspective. About 40 percent of the MBA class at IESE chooses the elective, and Rosenberg takes advantage of having students from 60 different countries who all add their own perspective to the discussion.  

“This is very powerful, especially when dealing with issues like the partition of India, the abuses of the military juntas in Latin America, or the situation in Israel and Palestine,” he says.

But in highly diverse and international classrooms, students speaking out on geopolitical issues can cause conflict. Rosenberg says he is having to manage tensions while giving voice to different viewpoints: “I encourage students to speak out on what they see as the truth, but also to be respectful and listen to other classmates’ opinions, even when they are on different sides of deep conflicts and painful situations.”

He says the MBA class largely achieves this balance, and many students tell him that the discourse, while sometimes heated, is the highlight of the course, as it opens everyone’s minds. “Probably the most important legacy of the course is for the students to understand that everyone has a personal story and a way they see the world,” says Rosenberg. “Only through this kind of constructive and respectful dialog can there be progress [towards reconciliation].”

How can MBA programs help students assess geopolitical risk?

Grenoble Ecole de Management in France was an early pioneer, making geopolitics a core part of its curriculum back in 2007. “Students need to be able to assess geopolitical risks,” says Phil Eyre, the MBA program director at Grenoble. “MBA programs therefore need to offer core modules in risk management, geopolitics, macroeconomics, [alongside] well-established subjects such as accounting, finance, microeconomics and people management.”

So he does not reckon the MBA needs root and branch reform, despite the dismantling of the global post-war order, noting that the MBA remains a sought-after qualification in general management that is still valued by students and employers alike. 

Certainly, Eyre says current volatility has heightened the need for MBA students who can understand and navigate the link between politics and business. “Employers are aware that a non-native student completing an MBA in France has by definition a strong international profile, is multilingual, and is at ease when operating in a turbulent, multicultural environment,” he says. “MBA [graduates] are expected to make the link between macroeconomics, geopolitics, corporate strategy and competitiveness.”

Much like at IESE, the geopolitics module at Grenoble is delivered through lively classroom interaction. The MBA students are invited to deliver presentations, giving their own analysis and point of view on a geopolitical issue. This invites reactions from classmates.

“Students are required to argue and to justify their views rationally and not simply state an ideological position,” says Eyre. “Students expect to witness disagreements in the classroom, that is part of the learning process. The art of teaching geopolitics is ensuring the conflict remains intellectual, and does not turn into hot-blooded confrontation.”

Grappling with climate change, global health, and more

Mari Sako, professor of management studies at University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in the UK, stresses the importance of teaching future business leaders how best to influence the global rules of the game around systemic challenges such as climate change, sustainability, global health, international migration and human rights.

“This involves analyzing the non-market environment, including geopolitical risks, and developing and implementing a corporate diplomacy plan, with skills and expertise in framing the issue, influencing, and coalition-building,” she says.

Sako adds that some MBA students are interested in careers that straddle the public and private sectors, and she reckons the world of business will need more leaders with this skill set. “The politics of global business has always been important, but it’s more so today when the world is getting less flat, with neo-nationalism and protectionism in a multi-polar world.”

Current world events provide plenty of food for thought, says Eyre at IESE. “In the coming year, we expect to discuss the geopolitics of vaccination, global warming and sustainable production.”

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