Be Curious, Not Judgmental

Dean Jon Levin writes about how being exposed to differing views is essential in business education — and business leadership — for Stanford Business magazine.

May 01, 2023

Some of my favorite GSB classes to attend are taught by Keith Hennessey. Keith served as director of the National Economic Council and teaches about business and economic policy. I’m admittedly biased toward the topic, but what I enjoy is the debate. Keith will pose a hard question — how to address rural-urban divides or regulate immigration — and push students to test out the politics, economics, and values of different arguments.

There has been a lot of discussion this year about campus discourse, sparked by incidents across the country, including one at Stanford Law School where students disrupted a talk by a federal appellate judge. So I want to address why being exposed to a wide range of views is essential for aspiring leaders and what we are doing to ensure that happens at the GSB.

My colleague Jenny Martinez, the dean of SLS, circulated a powerful letter after the episode at the law school. Jenny’s memo explains the legal protections for speech, but her most important point is that freedom of speech, rather than being a threat to inclusion, is the foundation of an inclusive environment. It ensures that all voices can be heard.

This argument resonates because violations of First Amendment rights are not the greatest threat to speech on campuses, and legal protections are not the central reason to welcome a wide range of opinions. Today, the most chilling effect on campus speech is the fear of being called out or ostracized for voicing an unpopular opinion. And the most compelling argument for encouraging different viewpoints is to spur thinking and foster learning.

Quote
“Leading a team, serving on a board, or facilitating
a meeting requires getting people to speak up,
disagree, and talk through problems, even when
the conversation is uncomfortable.”

Education fundamentally is about encountering differences: different ideas, different people, different cultures. We aim to attract a diverse range of students and faculty at Stanford precisely because they bring different ideas and perspectives. Okay, I’ll confess that in faculty meetings, I occasionally wish for a few less strong and disparate opinions. But to be fair to my faculty colleagues, it takes conviction to change the way people think.

Being exposed to differing views is essential in business education. When I think of celebrated GSB alumni such as Mary Barra or Rishi Sunak, a characteristic feature of their roles is the breadth of their constituencies. You don’t need to be CEO of General Motors or prime minister of the United Kingdom to appreciate the point. Leading a team, serving on a board, or facilitating a meeting requires getting people to speak up, disagree, and talk through problems, even when the conversation is uncomfortable. Those skills are critical to successful leadership.

In GSB orientation, I quote the noted leadership expert Ted Lasso and tell students that Stanford is a place to “be curious, not judgmental.”

We ask students to model that in the fall Leading with Values course, in Interpersonal Dynamics, in Keith Hennessey’s classes, in fact, at every step in the program.

We don’t always get it right. Pandemic Zoom interactions made it harder to keep the humanity of fellow students and faculty front and center. But I have a lot of faith in our students and faculty.

At a lunch this fall, a group of MBA2s told me about a provocative guest in Finance 321 who voiced strong opinions about climate change, COVID policy, and more. “What do you think?” they asked. “What do you think?” I replied. A lengthy discussion ensued. There was no consensus, but at the end, one of the students said, “Well, a lot of us didn’t agree with the guest, but it’s good he came because we’d better be prepared to work with people who do.”

Stanford’s motto is Die Luft der Freiheit weht: “The wind of freedom blows.” When I came to campus as a student in the fall of 1990, it was exactly the sense of freedom and openness that led me to fall in love with Stanford. Stanford was, is, and always will be a place to be exposed to different ideas, to learn from different people, and to form your own views and aspirations.

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