How MBAs Can Lead The Life They Want

Wharton’s Dr. Stewart D. Friedman

P&Q: What are the two main things that you’d want readers to take away from your book?

Friedman: First, that to achieve real success in your life and your career does not require forsaking the rest of your life. In fact, the opposite is true. The people who are significant and successful are those who have embraced the other parts of their lives, their families and communities, their inner lives – mind and spirit – and those have enriched, informed, and animated their success and the world.

Point two is that you can develop these skills for harmony in the different parts of your life. It is possible and it is something that isn’t going to be handed to you. You have to claim it and commit to cultivating and growing those skills by practicing them over time.

[There’s a third idea too]: The paradox is that to lead the life you want, you need to be focused on what is unique about you – your talents, passions and interests – and converting those into ways that you can  help serve others. That’s what I mean by ‘you don’t have to sacrifice everything.’ You have to embrace the other parts of your life in your career.  Another way of saying that is, you have to take care of the other parts of your life – your community, family, spiritual life, identity. That’s what’s going to make you successful. It’s about using what you got to make other people’s lives better. And that’s what’s going to be the bridge to help you live the life you truly want.

P&Q: You’re currently holding a “Better Leader, Richer Life” MOOC on Coursera. How do you envision MOOCs being used in the coming years to educate students?

Friedman: It’s hard to know. I think anyone who tells you they know the future of education just cannot know it. They’d be lying because there’s been so much changing so fast. But I can tell you from my own experience from the second iteration of teaching my MOOC that it has been profoundly inspiring to be part of that. The reach and impact that it has been having around the world is very, very gratifying. The platform, which requires all kinds of adjustments because you’re interacting with so many people, has such great power because of the accessibility. So it is clear, in that mode of interaction, that it’s going to become more and more the way learning happens, the way students interact with each other in the context of the learning community that universities and other entities are going to be creating.

What I found so fascinating, in addition to providing the content and lectures, was being very involved in the discussion forums, which is the main reason my courses have been rated so well . . . It was because of my active engagement with members of the community on a one-on-one basis, where my primary focus was on creating community. I found that my main job, beyond producing all the content, was to represent and reinforce values in how we interact – a learning community with compassion, caring, and genuine inquiry in judging ideas. That was very, very important . . . From reading the stories of what people are doing with the course materials; how they transform how they think, the possibilities they see for changing their lives, of being more capable of being leaders at work as well as in their families, communities and private lives; trying to change their roles in society and in their jobs;  seeing the community share ideas, to experiment with different ways of getting things done, giving them greater freedom and personal control, you realize that they are starting to lead lives they truly want to lead.

When you see people reporting about that, thanking each other for it, and expressing appreciation for being part of the community where these activities are happening, it’s humbling and gratifying. As I say, it’s inspiring because for so many people, it requires a great deal of courage to try something different.

And that’s what this course invites you to do, to go on a learning journey, where you are looking carefully at what matters to you and the people who matter most to you. Talk to them about what you expect of each other and actually create meaningful, real change in your world and to reflect on it, to learn more about what you’ve got – and what it takes to create sustainable change not just for you but for those you care for.

[Editor’s Note: Friedman is unsure when the next iteration of his course will be. He would like to do another one, noting “it is a lot easier the second time around.”]

P&Q: You have been teaching at Wharton for more than 30 years. How has business school education changed, for the better or worse, over that period?

Friedman: It has been glorious. I am so grateful for having had such a great run at an institution that’s filled with so many incredible people.

Now, how has education changed? When I first started really getting into this whole topic of work and a meaningful life, which was seven or eight years ago, it was strange to be talking about these questions. and to be researching and pursuing key knowledge on how people integrate the different parts of their lives. So when we founded the Work-Life Integration Project in 1991, it was not normal to be talking about these questions. Indeed, the same year, I was part of the Wharton leadership program and there was a lot of resistance to dealing with questions of, “Who are you as a person?” “How do you grow as a leader?” These days, those topics are not only standard fare, but they are in high demand.

The values of the students have shifted radically. There is much, much greater interest in, “How am I going to be a whole person and live a meaningful life?”  And “What does that mean for me personally and for our society?”  There’s a much greater interest in doing work that has a social value. And that means a lot in terms of how you fit the different parts of your life together and how it works for you and your world. And that’s where you’ve seen the biggest change: The values of the students, the hunger for morals, principles, [and] tools that can help them live lives of significance. And they’re responding to that.