Leadership, Management Education

Practical Affairs

By Bob Bruner-

“This time spent in self-examination has been a mountaintop experience.” – Participant in Darden’s Emerging Leaders Program

I am often asked about a phrase that appears in Darden’s mission statement: practical affairs. Why doesn’t the mission state that Darden will prepare principled leaders in the world of business? What’s with preparing leaders for the world of “practical affairs”?

A retired faculty member once told me that the phrase draws from the writings of Thomas Jefferson, the founder of University of Virginia and third President of the United States. Jefferson himself was a farmer, architect, small businessman, lawyer, diplomat, and politician. His career observed no guard rails that kept him in one narrow career track. He had an appetite for what came along in whatever field of practical affairs in which he worked.

Thus it is with the Darden alums today. At the most recent reunion, I asked the several hundred people in the Abbott Center Auditorium several questions about their careers. How many had worked as general managers in some fashion? A sea of hands went up. How many had worked in the not-for-profit sector or served on the board of a not-for-profit? Again, the overwhelming majority of hands went up. How many had served in government, either in an appointive or elected position? A large number, but a little less than half, of the hands went up. Hands kept going up as I surveyed the military, media, the law, and even religious institutions.

Increasingly, I see that our graduates contribute widely across many sectors of practical affairs. People once thought that if you started out in one field, you had to stay there for the rest of your career. That’s just not true anymore. The boundaries between business, not-for-profits, government, and other fields are permeable.

The big implication for business schools is that the scope of educational focus needs to widen to encompass not only business, but also the variety of fields in which the insights of business might benefit society. Fortunately, we already practice this at Darden. Here are two of many possible examples:

· The Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) is a joint venture between the Darden School and the Curry School of Education at UVA. This program trains leaders of underperforming schools in the strategies of turnarounds and the techniques of change leadership. PLE has been a leader in its field; its model is being adopted by other universities in the U.S. and abroad. The best thing is that within one year, about two-thirds of the schools who have sent representatives turn themselves around. Saving America’s K-12 schools is a pretty important field of practical affairs.

· Last month, my colleagues delivered the Program for Emerging Political Leaders (EPL) to 52 state legislators from 38 states. The aim of EPL is to explore political leadership in general and how the participants could improve their own leadership to make a difference in their states. Philosopher Dominic Scott led sessions on Plato’s Republic and its relevance to our modern times. Leadership Professor Ryan Quinn led a session on positive psychology and his latest book on “Lift” and its applicability to the political world.  Strategy and Ethics Professor Jared Harris led sessions on ethical dilemmas in politics, how to improve education and what to do about the global education gap, and trust and collaboration.  Faculty leader Professor R. Edward Freeman led sessions on the new realities of globalization, and how to personally improve leadership capabilities.  The legislators also attended a session in the Dome Room of the Rotunda where Legislators Mike Villines and Speaker Karen Bass of the California State Legislature spoke about their efforts to craft a bi-partisan budget, and the consequences of doing so.  The participants left full of ideas for action, and ready to make a difference in their states.

Darden is making a difference by carrying the tools and concepts of business into the wider field of practical affairs. I think Thomas Jefferson would have wanted it so.