Profs Name Favorite Movies For MBAs

Marlon Brando as The Godfather

Imagine you’re an MBA student opening up your syllabus for Ethics I. Chances are, you’ll find the “Johnson & Johnson: The Tylenol Tragedy” case assigned early on. It’s quite a story! In 1982, Tylenol dominated the pain killer medicine market. Then, someone laced capsules with cyanide, which cost the lives of seven users. Once the deaths were traced back to Tylenol, J&J faced a defining moment. Would they deny and defy, close ranks and string out the process? Or, would they take forceful steps knowing they could bankrupt the firm? In the end, Johnson & Johnson recalled over 30 million Tylenol bottles, costing the firm more than $100 million dollars. Instead of being reviled or ridiculed, Johnson & Johnson became a model for crisis management — and a business school staple.

Picture that three-page case inflated into a two-hour movie. Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain would be a shoo-in for the researcher who personifies the conscience of business. In boardroom scenes, various executives could voice fears, rationales, and strategies. With a bit of literary license, the movie could periodically pivot to one family’s grieving process. The closing credits would detail the story’s aftermath, including the rise of tamper-resistant packaging and J&J’s triumphant recovery in the marketplace.

Now, ask yourself: Which approach would spark a deeper and more memorable case discussion? Chances are, you’re poised to break out the popcorn and soda over the reading light and highlighter.


Bruce Wayne training with his “mentor” in Batman Begins

For many, movies are living case studies. They dramatize the ambiguous scenarios and agonizing decisions faced by business leaders every day. They are a reminder that business is far more than spreadsheets, business plans or stock announcements. Like any art, business movies reflect the values, transitions, and anxieties of the era. More than that, writes New York University’s Nate Pettit, they are a means to understand how commerce is perceived outside business school. “Because movies are typically made for mass consumption, the portrayal of business professionals in them reflects how MBAs are seen by some non-trivial percentage of the general public at that time,” he explains. “Holding that mirror up has some value, regardless of what is seen.”

What is a business movie? Since business permeates just about everything, the definition can be pretty sweeping. Take Batman Begins. Was it a big budget flick about a Princeton dropout who makes himself into a nocturnal force to stem his hometown’s decline? Or, is it a step-by-step manual for launching a venture out of your cave (or garage)? The answer, of course, is only limited by the imagination of viewers.

Kellogg School of Management professor Loran Nordgren, for example, jokingly refers to Animal House as his favorite business movie, describing it as a “how-to guide for onboarding and the development of company culture.”  At London Business School, Alex Edmans would recommend Chariots of Fire. ”While not overtly about business” he explains, “there is a critical message for MBA career choices in Eric Liddell’s quote: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast! And when I run, I feel His pleasure” It doesn’t matter whether you’re religious or not. Everyone has a passion. Choose a job that gets you fired up.”

As part of Poets&Quants40 Most Outstanding MBA Professors Under 40 project, we asked top business educators to name their favorite business-themed movie and the biggest lesson that MBA students could gain from it. Not surprisingly, we received some unconventional and unexpected choices. From Margin Call to Zootopia, here are ten of the most recommended business movies for you to watch.

12 Angry Men

The Story: Did you think Wall Street, a parable on greed and redemption, was going to be the top choice? Strangely, Oliver Stone’s signature work was cited by just one instructor — and only in passing. Instead, the most popular movie was 12 Angry Men, a 1957 courtroom drama that examines group dynamics in a jury deliberation. Throughout the torturous process, the jurors’ tally shifts, as jurors view evidence from different perspectives.  Over time, the jurors separate fact from speculation. A gradual move from secrecy to transparency also forces them to confront their underlying motivations, with one juror swayed by racial prejudice and another hoping to hasten the decision to attend a baseball game. In the end, the group moves from a hung jury to a “not guilty” verdict thanks to the influences of their peers.

Professors Say: “I think the big lessons that MBAs learn come by way of their experiences in the classroom, interacting with their classmates and faculty, and through trial-and-error in organizational settings. If I had to pick a movie, I’d probably go with 12 Angry Men. It’s a classic and a truly fascinating exemplar of influence and leadership. And it’s still relevant 60 years later!”

– Evan Apfelbaum, MIT (Sloan)

“It’s not a business-themed movie per se but for me, the process parallels what it means to think for oneself, to question, consider the evidence and then base conclusions on well founded reasons rather than general assumptions. These are critical leaderships skills”

– Sebastien Betermier, McGill (Desautels)

“It’s an incredibly powerful demonstration of so many concepts that are relevant to business. It does a great job of showing how hard it is to truly take someone else’s perspective, and just how important it is to do so.”

– Hal Hershfield, UCLA (Anderson)

“It’s not about business explicitly, but it’s a great example of how to persuade others effectively, which is a critical skill in business. Like many other b-school professors I use it to teach persuasion in my leadership class.”

– Lisa Leslie, New York University (Stern)

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.