Business Schools Can Shape Climate Leadership: Here’s How

When fighting climate change at a global level, we often look to institutions that have both human power and the ability to influence and educate. Larger groups of people with more attention on them tend to be able to lead the charge, after all. And so it was at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow last year. Many scientists and CEOs were there, along with representatives from NGOs and the government. However, the one group missing was a group that could have a massive positive impact on the climate action agenda: business schools.

Why are business schools late to the party?

The fact that climate change falls outside what you’d typically see in a business school’s academic curriculum is a major factor. Faculty might feel underqualified to talk about such an all-pervasive issue and might default to domains that are challenging but comfortable enough to explore, such as digital transformation. 

It might also be because climate change is still seen as something you could choose to believe in. This makes it harder to tackle as it involves changing many societal perceptions first.

Why are they critical to the narrative?

The core mission of any business school is to evolve and adapt the practice of management, especially in the face of unprecedented change. Climate change is the cause of much of this “unprecedented change.” While business schools aren’t experts in climate science, they do have the expertise to address change and access to technology, innovation, and some of the brightest minds in the world who are being primed for leadership roles. They also have the ability to collaborate with field experts, which creates the ideal environment to shape climate leadership.

Business schools also stress keeping the bigger picture in mind, which works marvelously in favor of climate action. Any organization’s climate footprint isn’t concentrated in one link of the chain. Reducing paper cups in an office doesn’t do much if the organization pollutes rivers somewhere down the chain. The opposite applies: reducing the climate footprint in the supply chain isn’t going to solve all problems if employees assume that stops at work and continue leaving a huge footprint in their personal lives. Working across the value chain to rework processes and reduce climate impact is a skill that business schools are uniquely placed to teach.

Much of the debate on climate action centers around who holds responsibility. Individual action doesn’t amount to much if change isn’t made at a leadership level. Leaders can’t make much change if individuals don’t listen to them. Since leadership and organizational change are at the core of any business school’s curriculum, their graduates can be made capable of influencing climate-friendly decisions and fostering collaboration across the board.

Business school students actively study governance and control, which is a facet of climate action that we can’t ignore. Business school graduates have worked with top leaders for decades to move the needle on shareholder value and incentivization. What if we were to add climate-related topics to the mix, such as speeding up decarbonization and regulating corporate activity to suit the climate agenda? We’d be able to create change more effectively and quickly.

How some B-schools are leading the charge

It isn’t fair to say that all business schools aren’t talking about how they can influence climate action. For example, the Climate Change and Business Program at Columbia Business School, features a 10-year-old curriculum that includes classes like The Business of Climate Change: Investing and Managing in a Changing Environment and New Development in Energy Markets. It focuses on relating theory and practice, which is one of the most important contributions B-school graduates can make to existing discourse.

Another example is the Leeds School of Business, whose Renewable Energy MBA Pathway prepares students to lead the transition to clean energy. Environmental entrepreneurship is a focus area, as are energy policies in the 21st century and sustainable energy in practice. 

Steps B-schools can take to tackle climate change

Business schools can cooperate to create a network of ethical and knowledgeable business executives. Here are a few suggestions on how to get started:

Re-evaluate the principles of capitalism taught at B-schools

With its emphasis on shareholder interests and profit, modern capitalism appears to be fundamentally in conflict with sustainability. When the narrative at schools also focuses on profit, sustainability becomes a lower-order priority. This is a fallacy because conscious and regenerative capitalism is still a viable route to take. We don’t need to give up growth and innovation to achieve sustainability — the two are more interlinked than we can currently see. This isn’t a departure from tradition. If anything, it’s a return to what many business schools were founded to do: educating the human first, then the business person. 

Integrate sustainability across the curriculum

While most courses on sustainability are well-intentioned, they’re fundamentally flawed because right from the get-go, they’re separated from other classes in the curriculum. This leads students to see sustainability as a separate entity, one that they only need to take up if they’re interested or need more credits. In reality, sustainability needs to be integrated into all courses, including marketing, operations, finance and accounting, as a unifying theme. This is a much more accurate picture of how critical sustainable leadership is while training to graduate from B-schools. 

Collaborate with other B-schools to fight a common enemy

Given that many business schools are keen competitors, this might sound challenging, if not possible. But it’s already happening, in the form of the Business Schools for Climate Leadership (BS4CL). Eight of Europe’s top business schools have formed this unique alliance to assist business leaders in posing essential questions and evaluating their capacity to respond appropriately to this global disaster. Their toolkit explains where there are chances to make a difference and where there are weaknesses that climate change will further reveal. Since they collectively teach over 55,000 students a year and have a collective alumni body of over 400,000 people, this collaboration can positively impact climate action. Colin Mayer of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School added:

“Not all schools have the expertise it takes to design courses, and some are better placed to draw on expertise from outside business school, so there’s a great deal that can be done working across institutions.”

Introduce sustainable case studies into course material

A lot of courses in business schools are taught using real-life case studies. This is a safe but exciting way to introduce climate leadership examples — giving students the opportunity to evaluate real-world successes while also understanding the complex ecosystems within which these companies have to operate. For example, the MBA program at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology features a case study on EcoMatcher as a business. Other universities can create similar sessions and even invite business owners to share their perspectives and introduce future leaders to the potential that waits in the sustainability sector.

Create momentum at the grassroots level

In many business schools, the course options are greatly influenced by students, and donors also have some sway. Grassroots student activism and continuous demand can provide the momentum that “new” concepts such as sustainability in business need to enter the core curriculum. 

The final word

Our work on climate change and leadership needs to become increasingly granular to have some impact, and focusing on climate leadership at business schools is one way to do that. As Colin Mayer said, “Business schools should be at the vanguard of the changes taking place, not at the rearguard.”