Getting to Know Ken Shotts

Discover what really matters to political economist Ken Shotts and why he believes mastering the art of disagreement is essential learning for executives.

February 17, 2023

Ken Shotts

Ken Shotts grew up in Livermore, CA in the shadow of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal nuclear weapons research facility. His father was deputy director of the lab and his mother was a special education teacher, so you could say an academic life was a natural career path. “You grow up and you get a PhD. All my friends’ parents had them. For a lot of people it’s like you become a doctor, you become a lawyer. In my hometown there were more PhDs than there were doctors or lawyers.”

Finding His Passion for Politics

After considering seven to eight potential majors for his undergraduate degree at Stanford, Ken chose political science. But it was only during his last year when he discovered his real passion: political economy, which uses the tools of economics, like game theory, to understand political institutions and behavior. It merged his love of political science with math and he “took to it like a duck to water.”

The front of the class is exactly where I want to be.
Ken Shotts

Encouraging Constructive Debate

Lecturing came easily to Ken. But he had to work hard to create a class environment where great discussions could happen. He compares teaching to acting, but with lots of improvisation. “It’s incredibly energizing to not always know the exact direction the class is going to take. The best part of teaching in Exec Ed is having all these smart, motivated executives sharing their real-world experience with the class. It contributes to everyone’s learning, including my own.”

Ken’s classes don’t avoid difficult or polarizing issues. That’s almost the point. “I tell people on slide two of my presentation, there will be disagreement here. And that’s good.”

Most importantly, Ken believes that well-educated business leaders need to understand how people can legitimately disagree with each other about the role their companies play in society. “It’s important that people who are having big impacts in the world be cognizant of the moral stakes and be aware that what they’re doing has effects in the world.”

Focus on the Big Picture

Participating in an Executive Education program is a rare opportunity for leaders to explore and reflect with a big picture, long-term lens. Ken says some of the learning will be actionable in the short term, but other ideas might surface months or years from now.

“We’re not just trying to teach people how to sell more widgets or develop the next app or come up with better financing for something. Those are all important goals, but that’s not the only thing we’re about here at Stanford GSB. We try to provide useful tools, but we’re not just trying to help you solve next week’s problems. This is a long run investment in people, in one’s own human capital.”

Following His Curiosity

One thing that remains constant for Ken is an insatiable curiosity for studying really important aspects of society. “Yes, I enjoy the cleverness of the analysis, but what motivates me is that I’m ultimately studying topics that really matter.” His latest research is focused on the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, trying to understand why a fundamentally majority rule institution chooses to hold themselves to a 60 vote threshold to pass most legislation. He’s also researching the role of alternative media in holding politicians accountable for the quality of their policy making.

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