Reclaiming Values & Vision in Management Education to Create Systems Change

Posted April 26, 2022 | Sustainability | Leadership | Amplify
In this issue:


The authors examine the beliefs driving the dominant capitalist and democratic systems that govern the West. They believe we need to change the way we think to imagine a future where all life flourishes. For them, social transformation must be at the scale of previous transformations like the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Accomplishing this will require change across many social systems, but the authors target one in particular: MBA programs. The authors opine that business schools must ground MBA programs in the liberal arts and science traditions of the great medieval universities while challenging students to approach their work as a calling and using organizational methods and resources to create values-driven, society-scale change.


Where does systems change begin? It begins in the same place it always has: in the minds, hearts, and imaginations of concerned, thoughtful individuals in organizations and communities who are able to observe, critique, create, articulate, and implement the case for change (to paraphrase Margaret Mead).

In this article, we discuss the philosophies driving the West’s dominant capitalist and democratic systems and explore how we can integrate them, using the strengths of each, to improve life for all. To do so, we must change our thinking and challenge today’s management education system (primarily the MBA), which is producing leaders focused on the short-term maximization of individualistic shareholder wealth, leading to vast social inequality and destruction of ecological systems.

We consider two seminal thinkers, Thomas Jefferson and recent Economics Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who developed transformative models of community. We also look at an educational management community model illustrated by Presidio Graduate School, the first MBA in sustainable management in the US.1

Capitalism Is Societal Practice, Not Philosophy

For the past several decades, capitalism has been framed as a way to provide liberty for individuals while socialism is described as individuals controlled by the state. We have lost sight of the fact that both of these systems are simply practices for distribution of goods and services as expressions of a society’s philosophies and shared beliefs.

In great part, this confusion is behind the extreme divisions of philosophy we’re now experiencing in the US (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Divisions in philosophy in the US — Red: Republican, Green: Democrat (source: Wolf)
Figure 1. Divisions in philosophy in the US — Red: Republican, Green: Democrat (source: Wolf)

A stunning May 2021 article by Financial Times’ revered Chief Economics Commentator Martin Wolf, “The Struggle for the Survival of American Democracy,” begins with a quote from US President Joe Biden’s 28 April 2021 address to Congress: “The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent, as old as our Republic.” And Wolf, not known for exaggeration, ends his column with “[Biden’s agenda] may be the most consequential gamble taken by any democratic leader in my lifetime. The future of democracy is at stake.”2 (That gets your attention!) Wolf is referring to Biden’s trillion-dollar Build Back Better plan for infrastructure, environment, and social service investment.

As Figure 1 illustrates, the US is divided between those who believe the government should be taking such actions, based on community or socialist philos­ophies, and those who want these decisions left to the market, based on individual liberty philosophy. Our claim is that we must integrate the strengths of each in new ways. And, since we are talking about investment decisions to develop the goods and services society needs, the MBA education should be a central place to help students think of investable ideas to address the enormous social and environmental challenges we face. 

This would mean a radical change to MBA education. We reference Presidio’s MBA, which was, according to cofounder Dr. Richard Gray, founded to challenge students “to create values-driven Big Ideas to change the world.”3⁠ We are inspired by two foundational ideas that changed our way of viewing the individual and the community working in the world: Jefferson launching modern democracy as the case for individual liberty, and Ostrom making the case for community or poly­centric governance as a way to manage complex economic systems. Jefferson’s theories, Ostrom’s theories, and the Presidio MBA are based on philos­ophies of building communities; it seems Americans, however, aren’t very good at this practice of philos­ophical thought.

Reframing the Conceptual Foundations of the MBA Education

Political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville said: “Less attention, I suppose, is paid to philosophy in the United States than in any other country of the civilized world. I should say that in most mental operations, each American relies on individual effort and judgment.… So, each man is narrowly shut up in himself, and from that basis makes the pretention to judge the world.”4

This is the philosophical problem the Presidio program attempts to address. Presidio’s MBA was launched in 2003 by cofounders Gray and Steven Swig. Gray provided visionary guidance and leadership; Swig served as the program’s first president and provided funding to ensure financial viability until student tuition could cover the school’s expenses. The authors served with them as founding provost (Nahser) and founding faculty (Collins).

The program challenges the modern scientific/materialist methods traditional business education relies on. It posits that to move to a more holistic way of thinking, we must:

  1. Acknowledge the cognitional myth that knowing is like looking. Simply looking fails to recognize that we all see the world through our belief filters (world-view). Intelligent understanding goes beyond collecting data to support our present views; it involves taking in all relevant data to create a more truthful explanatory narrative.

  2. Integrate analysis and synthesis in our systems thinking. Analysis breaks the system into its component parts (left brain), and synthesis assembles the parts into a greater whole (right brain). Systems thinking moves between analysis and synthesis to more accurately understand and portray the operations of a functioning system.

  3. Transition from a values-neutral stance to a values- and vision-driven stance. Everything we do reflects the allocation of a limited resource we all value: our attention. And our goal is, at its core, to seek out the good, true, and beautiful, as each of us understands these goals. The ancients saw this pursuit as the source of happiness, and is what we identify as a “Calling” (this is often seen as thinking with your heart or gut); it is what it means to put a values- and vision-driven stance into action.5

We believe these three challenges call for a radical shift in education. Instead of transmitting existing knowledge or developing a set of functional skills, students must become comfortable with the process of thinking based on America’s unique contribution to the history of philosophy: pragmatism.6 Specifically, we advocate for teaching Pragmatic Inquiry®7 — an approach to addressing complex and ambiguously defined problems in which the resulting answers, decisions, behaviors, and actions reflect the values of the inquirer.8

Since Pragmatic Inquiry stresses thought development, it relies heavily on the experience of the inquirer. In contrast with reductionist scientific methods, Pragmatic Inquiry preserves the context and keeps the dynamic system as a whole in the view of the inquirer, leading to action. In this way, the management education system would transition from:

  • A focus on mastery of content to mastery of inquiry (i.e., from content-centric to inquiry-centric)

  • A mastery of skills to a mastery of method

  • An accumulation of discrete knowledge to an ongoing process of learning

  • A curriculum to domains of inquiry

  • Courses of specified content over a specific duration of time to a demonstration of sufficient inquiry through the use of projects and men­tor feedback (also known as experiential learning)

Presidio has accomplished this transition in several distinctive few ways. First, it encourages students to pursue one or more Big Ideas in response to their Calling. This establishes the focus of the students’ learning experience to develop business plans and organizations to serve the well-being of humanity and the ecosystems on which we all depend.9

Second, it establishes a collegial approach to teaching. Faculty members focus not just on the acquisition of book knowledge, but on coaching students in navi­gating an “Arc of Pragmatic Inquiry,” supported by learning through personal experience (see Figure 2).10

Figure 2. Coaching through the Arc of Pragmatic Inquiry® (adapted from Gray)
Figure 2. Coaching through the Arc of Pragmatic Inquiry® (adapted from Gray)

This approach essentially recreates the tutorial system introduced at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the 16th century, in which professors lived and worked with students and which served as the model for the early American university experience. Presidio has followed this collegial model, with a focus on:

  • Experiential learning. Presidio engages students in collegial learning through real-world experience. Gray believed real-world business experience should be combined with classroom time to provide students with the opportunity to reflect and learn. Students are exposed to real-world business problems, bringing authenticity to the student process of updating his or her life-path hypothesis and searching for Big Ideas via Pragmatic Inquiry.

  • Environmental sustainability and social justice in every course. Dimensions of environmental sustainability and social justice are woven into every course as appropriate.

  • Embracing the tension between maintaining and disrupting the business status quo. Presidio’s academic mission creates and embraces a tension between teaching for success in today’s markets and teaching students how to disrupt the status quo as needed to create the world they want. By taking on the bold challenges of our time, classrooms at Presidio become incubators for transformative paradigms and effective action plans.

  • Focus on business solutions incorporating prosocial behavior. Underlying the practice of Pragmatic Inquiry at Presidio is the idea that, in addition to our drive to compete in business, humans have the capacity (in the form of prosocial instincts) to care for one another and cooperate. This prosocial nature is incorporated into students’ Big Ideas.

These strategies are all aimed at supporting the students’ inquiry into the nature and source of their Big Ideas and Calling, an educational practice at the foundation of the medieval universities we lost and must reclaim.

Marischal College, Thomas Jefferson & the Calling

Think of other transformational changes in history: the Scientific Method gave us a new way to look at evidence, the Reformation freed individuals to think and pray on their own, and the Enlightenment showed us new ways to think.

In Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1755, the faculty at Marischal College incorporated all three of these transformational ideas into one curriculum. The professors believed that philosophy had to be re-thought in light of science and, in an effort to emphasize the pursuit of knowledge, they changed the order in which they taught the subjects, moving philosophy (Philosophy of Spirits, Pneumatology, Ethics, and Logic) from the first year to the final year to follow science in the third year (including mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, optics, astronomy, magnetism, and electricity).11

The program became a great success and spread to the other four Scottish universities. (England at this time, with four times the population, had just two universities.) Many of their graduates went to America as faculty and eventually educated many of our founding fathers. One graduate of Marischal, Dr. William Small, went to William & Mary College and taught the new curriculum to a teenaged Jefferson.12

Later in life, Jefferson wrote: “It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. Wm. Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics.... [F]rom his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed.” (This describes “the Calling.”) Jefferson went on to say of Small, “To his enlightened and affectionate guidance of my studies while at college, I am indebted for everything…. He first introduced into both schools [of philosophy and mathematics] rational and elevated courses of study, and, from an extraordinary conjunction of eloquence and logic, was enabled to communicate them to the students with great effect.”13

And in 1776, Jefferson would combine eloquence and logic when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident … unalienable Rights … Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.

Notably, “pursuit of happiness” was not a whimsical phrase but rather the foundational practice of the “moral sense” of serving others within the Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy.14 Above, we referred to this moral sense to care for one another as our “prosocial instincts.”

Over time, the sciences and quantitative methods (left brain) pushed philosophy, theology, and other studies of the mind (right brain, not to mention heart and gut) out of the curriculum. Presidio attempts to reclaim the Marischal senior year study of philosophy, the jewel of the medieval university; particularly “pneumatology,” or the study of the movement of the “Spirit” and the study of how the mind works.

As in the case of Jefferson, we attempt to help our students see their place in the system of things and then to see what they are “called” to do. We want our students to feel the same sense of urgency of a “call” that led Jefferson later to begin the words that launched modern democracy: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary….” This movement of “spirit” or “Big Ideas” is the evidence of values and vision in action.

Values, Vision & Paradigm Change

As we said in our discussion of the challenges Presidio has addressed, the answers, decisions, behavior, and actions yielded by Pragmatic Inquiry reflect the values and vision of the inquirer. Values are the building blocks of purpose and vision, which yield strategy and tactics for action (see Figure 3).15

Figure 3. Values and vision drive strategy (adapted from Collins and Lazier)
Figure 3. Values and vision drive strategy (adapted from Collins and Lazier)

Our definition of value (not the easiest definition in philosophy) is as follows: any belief, principle, or virtue held so deeply (consciously or unconsciously) that it guides our behavior, decisions, and actions.16

As students navigate an Arc of Pragmatic Inquiry, they challenge, clarify, and activate the values and vision that are in play relative to the focus of their discovery and reflection process. This process is essential as a source of transformative ideas and paradigms. Becoming comfortable with changing paradigms equips students with the capability to change the way business is done. Indeed, in “Places to Intervene in the System,” author and systems thinker Donella Meadows points out that changing paradigms is the most effective way to bring about systemic change.17 In fact, only at this level is significant change possible (recall our paraphrase of Mead in the first paragraph of this article).

Figure 4 illustrates two dramatically different para­digms (world-views) for how our economic system should operate (and harken back to Figure 1).18 Nobel Prize–winning Economist Milton Friedman believed society is best served when business leaders strive to maximize profits while adhering to the rules of society reflected in the law and ethical custom (ideas originating with Adam Smith19).

Figure 4. Opposing theories: Milton Friedman and Elinor Ostrom (adapted from Wilson)
Figure 4. Opposing theories: Milton Friedman and Elinor Ostrom (adapted from Wilson)

On the opposite side, Nobel Prize–winning Economist Ostrom puts cooperation at the center of the economy (polycentric governance). Over decades of observing communities worldwide managing common pool resources (CPRs) like fisheries and forests, Ostrom saw a way to combine the best practices of free markets (capitalism) and government regulation (socialism). She saw individuals voluntarily forming into groups to address resource management challenges in a larger systems context, with “cheap talk” as the key process of negotiation.20

From her study of these groups’ communication practices, Ostrom identified a set of core design principles (CDPs) that, when followed, allow groups to manage CPRs successfully. Many evolutionary and sociobiological scientists see Ostrom’s findings as evidence of their research findings on our gene-culture coevolution-based capacity for survival.21

Ostrom’s empirical approach to polycentric governance provides a larger-than-life example of the paradigm-changing potential of Presidio:

  • Ostrom’s empirical research approach is a type of Pragmatic Inquiry.

  • Like the Big Ideas developed by Presidio students, the success of groups following the CDPs identified by Ostrom demonstrates the power of our prosocial capacity for caring and cooperation within groups.22

  • One of Ostrom’s CDPs — strong group identity and sense of purpose — provides validation for Presidio’s Arc of Pragmatic Inquiry. A Big Idea can bring people together to form a strong group identity, giving participants a sense of purpose in implementing the idea.23

Taking this paradigm-changing potential to scale by introducing the Presidio model into other MBA programs, we can transform our current business system focused on investments for individual wealth into one that creates Big Ideas for organizations and communities to care for humanity and our environment; a Calling for each of us to pledge, as did our forebearers, “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”


1Presidio Graduate School website/Presidio Graduate School Academics, 2022; and “Presidio Graduate School: What Are Your Ideas to ‘Change the World’?” Corporantes Pragmatic Inquiry, accessed April 2022.

2Wolf, Martin. “The Struggle for the Survival of American Democracy.” The Financial Times, 11 May 2021.

3Gray, Richard M. Personal communications to Ron Nahser, 21–22 February 2006. Gray: “I believe the central marketing point for Presidio’s MBA in sustainable management is the Calling, culminating in the Venture Plan, toward which the entire program is geared. ‘What’s the Big Idea?’ captures that central marketing point. I believe, both briefly and memorably.” Nahser: “’What's driving you?’ This is based on the idea of ‘moral impulse,’ which lies at the heart of the human experience.”

4Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Harper & Row, 1966. (For those of us who wonder about the power of philos­ophy, Tocqueville goes on: “So, of all the countries in the world, America is the one in which the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed.”)

5Kelley, Scott, and Ron Nahser. “Developing Sustainable Strategies: Foundations, Method, and Pedagogy.” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 123, January 2014.

6Nahser, F. Byron (Ron), Robert N. Bellah, and George Kell. Learning to Read the Signs: Reclaiming Pragmatism for the Practice of Sustainable Management. 2nd edition. Routledge, 2013; and “Pragmatism.” Wikipedia, accessed April 2022.

7“Pragmatic Inquiry®” is a registered trademark of Corporantes, Inc. Used with permission.

8The American Pragmatists.” Corporantes Pragmatic Inquiry, accessed April 2022.

9Hoffman, Andrew J. Management as a Calling: Leading Business, Serving Society. Stanford University Press, 2021.

10Gray, Richard M. “Beyond Conformity: A Study of Individuality in the College Community.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1972.

11Gerard, Alexander. Plan of Education in the Marischal College and University of Aberdeen, with the Reasons of It. Drawn Up by Order of the Faculty. James Chalmers, 1755.

12Sloan, Douglas Milton. The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal. Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1971.

13Washington, H.A. (ed). The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. H.W. Derby, 1861.

14Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Doubleday, 1978.

15Collins, James C., and William C. Lazier. Beyond Entrepreneurship: Turning Your Business into an Enduring Great Company. Prentice Hall Press, 1995.

16Nahser, Ron. Journeys to Oxford: Nine Pragmatic Inquiries into the Practice of Values in Business and Education. Global Scholarly Publications, 2009.

17Meadows, Donella H. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.

18Wilson, David Sloan. Proceedings of Gross Global Happiness 2022, United Nations (UN) University for Peace, 4-6 March 2022.

19Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776. (Note: The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was published 17 years before the much better known “Wealth of Nations.” Smith revised The Theory of Moral Sentiments six times, with the last edition published just before he died. He had added a final section: “Of Systems of Moral Philosophy.”)

20Ostrom, Elinor. “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems.” American Economic Review, Vol. 100, No. 3, June 2010.

21Wilson, David Sloan, and Edward O. Wilson. “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 82, No. 4, 2007.

22Richerson, Peter J., Dwight Collins, and Russell M. Genet. “Why Managers Need an Evolutionary Theory of Organizations.” Strategic Organization, Vol. 4, No. 2, May 2006.

23Wilson, David Sloan, Elinor Ostrom, and Michael Cox. “Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Vol. 90, June 2013.

About The Author
Dwight Collins
Dwight Collins is Dean Emeritus and a member of the founding faculty at the Presidio Graduate School, recognized by the New York Times in 2015 as “the MBA program to attend to change the world.” He was Dean of Presidio’s MBA Program from 2013 to 2015. Dr. Collins cofounded the school’s Experiential Learning Program and has taught his signature “Sustainable Operations and Supply Chain Management” course since the school's founding. He is founder… Read More
Ron Nahser
Ron Nahser is Executive Director for Corporantes, an outgrowth of The Nahser Agency/Advertising. He is Senior Fellow/Director of Urban Sustainable Management Programs, Institute for Nature and Culture at DePaul University’s Department of Environmental Science and Studies. Dr. Nahser is also Provost Emeritus of Presidio School of Management, which offers the first accredited MBA in sustainable management. He lectures and consults with business… Read More