2016 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Isaac Smith, Johnson Graduate School of Management

Isaac Smith Cornell

Isaac Smith

Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations

Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School of Management

What makes a great teacher? For the answer, you can step into one of Isaac Smith’s “Principled Leadership” courses at Cornell. Praised for both his “commanding knowledge” and “emotional intelligence” by students, Smith teaches leadership by being an example. Despite his youthful demeanor – he is mistaken for being a student all the time – Smith creates a learning environment where students are freed up to open up as they learn to think deeply and critically. A proud father who has grown to love Paw Patrol and Thomas and Friends, Smith prides himself on being a life-long learner who strives to inspire and make an impact through his teaching and research.

Age: 36

At current institution since: 2014

Education: PhD, Organizational Behavior, University of Utah, 2014; MBA, Brigham Young University, 2007; BA, English and Economics, minor in Political Science, Brigham Young University, 2004

Courses you currently teach: I teach two core MBA courses: Leading Teams and Principled Leadership

Professor you most admire: Arthur Brief, for the role he played in my intellectual development. As chair of my dissertation committee, mentor, and friend, Art helped refine and enrich my thinking. He helped fuel my passion for scholarship, and our differences related to faith, politics, generation, and even interpersonal style helped to broaden my perspective. Art not only cared about the quality of my research, but also about me as a person.

“I knew I wanted to be a b-school professor when…as an MBA student, I observed that it was one of the best jobs in the world: life-long learning, immense flexibility and autonomy, an opportunity to make meaningful contributions (through teaching, research, and community involvement)—and someone would actually pay you for all of that. Who knew?”

“If I weren’t a b-school professor…I’d be a writer or a social entrepreneur—or both.”

Most memorable moment in the classroom or in general as a professor: Nothing stands out above the rest; lots of great memories so far! But I always chuckle when I get mistaken for a fellow student. Often, after the first session of a course, a student will often come up to me and sheepishly say a variation of, “When you first started class, I thought you were a student who was just going to be making an announcement.” #looklikeatwentyyearold

What do you enjoy most about being a business school professor? The opportunity to make meaningful contributions as a teacher and as a researcher. As teachers, we have a responsibility to teach, but we have an opportunity to inspire. Those rare moments when you connect with students in an inspiring way (sometimes out of the classroom) are what make teaching so worthwhile. As researchers, we have an opportunity to not only disseminate knowledge but to create it. Striving to create knowledge that can meaningfully impact people’s lives for the better makes the slow, sometimes protracted, research process more than worth it.

What do you enjoy least about being a business school professor? Final grading (not the reviewing of students’ work—which is often rewarding—but having to communicate to some students that their work was not up to par, with no time left to help them improve it).

Fun fact about yourself: I spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Mongolia, where I fell in love with the people, the language, and the culture.

Favorite book: Les Misérables (for the redemptive journey of its flawed protagonist) and To Kill a Mockingbird (because there is something captivating about trying to see challenging societal issues through the naïve perspective of a child’s innocence; in that regard, perhaps I could throw The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn onto the list as well).

Favorite movie: Such a hard question, and I’m terrible with favorites anyway. I grew up loving the classics with my dad (e.g., Errol Flynn, Charlton Heston, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart). I love many of the trilogies (which don’t seem to remain trilogies for very long anymore): Star Wars, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, the Bourne trilogy, etc. And I love any movie that inspires me, like It’s a Wonderful Life, Gandhi, Hotel Rwanda, Hoosiers, The Pursuit of Happyness, etc.

Favorite type of music: The Beatles, U2, Boston, Fun, Coldplay, Jack Johnson, classical (again, terrible with favorites)

Favorite television show: Paw Patrol, Thomas & Friends, and Wild Kratts—such is the life of a dad with two little boys: Eli (age 5) and Simon (age 3)

Favorite vacation spot: Anywhere with history, culture, nature, or loved ones.

What are your hobbies? Being a dad, playing the guitar, soccer, basketball, travel (I used to include waterskiing, camping, writing poetry, golf, and tennis, but I feel disingenuous claiming something as a hobby that I do less than once per year)

Twitter handle: @isaac_h_smith

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have…an even higher percentage of students who dedicate their business education to becoming wildly successful while simultaneously accomplishing the twin clichés of (1) fulfilling their potential and (2) making the world a better place (does acknowledging something as a cliché make it less of one?).”

Students say…

“Professor Smith’s teaching style is a unique combination of empathy and command. He simultaneously relates well with his students while also maintaining an extremely credible and commanding knowledge of the material. It is a pleasure to sit in on a class of his and see how he can get his students to open up and be honest with each other but never losing control of the situation. Not many professors have an ability like Professor Smith’s to build trust, maximize learning, and have students walk away from a class still talking about the topic.”

Evan A. Bruno

PhD Student

Johnson School of Management, Cornell University

Cornell University

“Professor Smith was my favorite teacher in business school as he has both an incredible knowledge of leadership concepts, but also a high degree of emotional intelligence to accompany his teaching style. [He] has a knack for moderating group discussions as he ensures a respectful class environment while motivating us to think critically. I really appreciate Professor Smith’s teaching style of positive recognition and reinforcement during large group discussions as he created an atmosphere of openness and honesty.

Teaching leadership and business ethics to a room full of skeptical, profit-driven business students would be very difficult. Professor Smith was able to relay the importance of these topics while holding the attention of the room.”

Kelsey Klaver, MPH

Accelerated MBA Candidate, Class of 2016

Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University


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