We will launch the first year of our MBA-Full Time program today. Some 319 students will enroll and begin the 21-month process of becoming MBAs. When I chat with our incoming students, I discover a range of motives for coming to Darden: to get a better job; to learn the skills to take a higher job in the same field; to make more money; to go into business for oneself. I actually think that these are reasonable motives for going back to school. But they are all trumped by motives rarely mentioned: to grow stronger as a person and professional in impact in the world; to learn to lead better; and to get an education. In the former set of motives, schooling is just a means to an end; in the latter, schooling is an end in itself.

I am practical enough to believe that we’ll never persuade students to suspend entirely their means-oriented thinking. MBA students are a famously pragmatic lot; their pragmatism serves them well in tackling the challenges of B-school and getting the great jobs they covet. My issue with a means-driven approach to getting an MBA is that it imposes a huge opportunity cost on the student: you miss so much that could really make you more effective.

A means-oriented MBA student will focus on acquiring the skills just necessary to get an entry-level position in a major consulting firm or I-bank. An ends-oriented student probably has some larger vision toward which he or she is working (such as running or owning a company some day) and uses the two years in B-school to acquire a very broad range of competencies.

The educational gain for the means-oriented student is relatively small: focused on a few subjects, tools, and concepts—there is a vague promise to learn the rest of the stuff “when I get around to it.” The ends-driven student dives into everything in the belief that sooner or later, it will pay off.

The means-driven student hasn’t got much time for clubs, section activities, or the slower colleague in the learning team—these are viewed as distractions from the goal of getting a job. The ends-driven student sees these other time demands as integral to the whole learning experience at Darden.

Ultimately, the main difference between means- and ends-driven students is in their willingness to be drawn out. The verb, “to educate,” derives from an ancient Greek verb, “to draw out.” We admit students to Darden in whom we see unusual promise, some strength or capacity or talent that, with drawing out in our program, can prove to be a source of great impact in business. Ultimately, as our mission statement says, we want to “develop leaders in the world of practical affairs.” To achieve this, virtually all students must experience a personal transformation in one or more ways:

* To think critically. Harold Macmillan, former Prime Minister of the U.K. once said that the point of an education is to know “when another person is talking rot.” The business world desperately needs people who can recognize flawed assumptions, broken logic, and outright knavery.

* To analyze rigorously. Many of the tools and concepts one learns in an MBA program help to lend rigor to one’s critical faculties. These tools are not ends in themselves; indeed, many of them have their own flaws and limitations. But in the aggregate, they push the thoughtful practitioner to ask, “How well do you know what you know?” The spirit of testing is invaluable.

* To innovate joyfully. Like education, innovation is a process of drawing out good ideas for new products and services from a circle of professionals, customers, and suppliers. At its heart, skills of leadership drive this process.

* To shape a plan of action. Too many MBA graduates master the tools and concepts of business but cannot tell you the significance of their findings or what to do about them. Analysis without action-taking may entail a breach of ethics—criminal indictments in several of the corporate scandals in the early part of this decade engulfed executives who knew better but did nothing.

* To communicate effectively, in formal presentations, and in informal settings of persuasion. This may entail enlisting others around a common vision, informing others about a problem or opportunity, or simply spelling out a plan of action.

These five attributes, and others, are best gained in a “high engagement” learning environment like Darden’s. No textbook or series of lectures will adequately strengthen you in these ways. Instead, they must be drawn out of you through engagement with others. Rather like an athlete preparing for a new sport or event, the learning experience must demonstrate what you need, coach you, and give you plenty of opportunities to try your new capabilities. Too often, the means-driven student misses all this.

I encourage the entering class of 2009 (and the returning class of 2008) to keep the higher goal in view: to be educated. Very many alumni have told me that among the gifts Darden gave them, the highest was how to think. You are likely to say the same thing, if you learn widely, explore outside your comfort zone, actively engage the people around you, and work hard. Keep first things first: the best that Darden can give you is a solid education.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 08/19/2007 08:20:56 AM