How They Teach The Case Method At Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda

Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda


“This is the fifth miner who has been killed in an accident in this mine just in the few months that Cynthia has been the CEO,” Mukunda says in the podcast. “She’s got to decide what to do.”

Carroll, hired as AngloAmerican CEO in 2007, was an ideal research and case subject for Mukunda, who studies “unconventional leaders who come in and have enormous impacts,” he says in the podcast. “Cynthia was unconventional in every way you could possibly imagine. AngloAmerican had never been led by an outsider. It had never been led by a non-South African. And no significant company in the history of the mining industry had ever been led by a woman. Cynthia Carroll was an American, outsider, non-miner. So this is an extraordinary combination of differences for her to deal with.”

Mukunda, who has studied international trade in synthetic biology, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, and Wall Street, says the South African business environment at the time Carroll arrived in the country was “without qualification or reservation” the most complex he’s researched. “You have a workforce where 70% of it is illiterate, speaking nine different languages. It’s entirely possible that none of those nine languages are English or Afrikaans, which are the languages spoken by the supervisors of the company. You have the legacy of apartheid. You have political tensions where the mining industry has a history of essentially using apartheid to generate cheap labor to generate profits in South Africa that the government of South Africa understandably resents, and so they are not favorably disposed towards mining companies.”


Before writing the case, which was published in 2013, Mukunda’s research took him a mile deep into the Rustenburg platinum mine where the miners had died under Carroll’s leadership. The HBS prof worked a typical shift in what he describes as “a city of 30,000 people done in tunnels underneath one mile of solid rock.

“You spend those 12 hours – and I did this with a steam drill – on your hands and knees with your head touching the ceiling drilling in a one-meter-high space. Everything you mine you have to haul vertically up a mile. We’re carrying about 40 pounds of equipment. It’s hot. It’s wet. It’s loud.”

That research armed Mukunda with a dramatic device for the classroom.  Almost invariably after Mukunda starts the discussion of the case, he says, a student who has visited a mine will talk about it, and Mukunda says, “OK, but let’s stop for a second, let’s process that.” He makes the class get under their desks. “And believe me, they want out. They want to be under and then say, ‘That was great,’ and bounce back out. And I have to say, ‘No, I want you to stay under the desk for a minute or so while I talk, and just imagine what it’s like being in this posture for 12 hours while you’re doing just incredibly heavy physical labor that entire stretch of time.’”

The case method attempts to put students in positions that replicate the types of real-life, crucially important decision-making expected of high-level leaders. In the Carroll case, the critical decision revolves around a conflict that will inevitably confront many, many an HBS MBA, between corporate responsibility and profit. “She said at one point to the board, ‘I will resign before I lead a company that kills this many people every year,'” Mukunda says.


Case study subject and Harvard Business School MBA Cynthia Carroll - HBS photo by Susan Young

Case study subject and Harvard Business School MBA Cynthia Carroll – HBS photo by Susan Young

Faced with continuing fatalities in the Rustenburg mine, Carroll had to make a choice: “This is as high as the stakes ever get,” Mukunda says. “We’re talking 600,000 people might be dependent on what decision she makes. What is the most important thing for her? Should they keep producing? Rustenburg is the largest platinum mine in the world. Everything she does has global impact. What is the most important thing? Making sure that no one else dies and doing whatever you have to do to stop that? Does that mean just shutting down the mine?”

The case method is intended to force students to make so many decisions about the problems in their cases that decision-making becomes habitual. Carroll, as a protagonist, provides an example of decisiveness, Mukunda says. “She does not doubt herself ever. In fact, when she came to our class the students pressed her on this. They couldn’t believe that anyone would be this certain under these stakes. They asked her again and again, ‘Did you ever doubt the choices you made?’ Her response was always, ‘Never, not once.’ She said, ‘You make a choice and you move forward. You don’t look back.’”

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