At many business schools, MBAs read two cases a day on average. That comes to 150 cases in any given semester. While cases are comparable to short stories in length, they are packed with dense backstories and messy conflicts as any good tale.
Like stories, cases feature protagonists, managers wrestling with dilemmas ranging from market disruptions to product recalls. The case will explore their decision-making processes. Protagonists will confront incomplete and incompatible information – not to mention resource restraints and institutional logjams. Beyond reading, cases demand preparation. As students wade through raw data and decipher implications, they learn what questions to ask and which alternatives to consider. Still, the case method is ultimately a public affair, as students present and defend their arguments, anticipating objections and listening for better possibilities.
MAKING CASE STUDIES REAL
For some students, movies are live-action cases. While cases teach readers how to think, movies show them how to feel. With plotlines, characters, and visuals, movies bring lessons to life. The message resonates because it’s immediate and connects because it taps into personal experience. Behind the thought-provoking lines and mood-evoking backdrops, the characters come across as real people who face the same tensions and temptations as everyone else. In the end, movies provide a window: one where viewers can experience and interpret another world – no different than a case study.
Sometimes, art and commerce intersect. Wall Street, for example, served as an allegory on the excesses of consumption. In the world of Gordon Gekko – a financial hustler who gains “information” by dubious means – money is a “zero-sum game” that is “transferred from one perception to another…like magic.” A generation later, The Social Network traced the growth of Facebook, illustrating how relationships can be corrupted by jealousy and money. In between, you’ll find Office Space. A cult classic, the movie satirizes an unimaginative corporate culture where employees lack incentive and influence. The movie centers around Peter Gibbons, a disillusioned white-collar drone. After a hypnosis session gone awry, Peter shucks off corporate convention (and TPS reports). Instead, he begins to speak candidly and follows his own impulses, much to the dismay of his eight bosses.
It is a storyline that rang true with many top MBA graduates from the Class of 2019, including Taylor Henning, a University of North Carolina grad who moved into healthcare administration after graduation.
MORE THAN MINDLESS ESCAPISM
“It’s a classic with so many personas and hilarious portrayals of workplace annoyances to which nearly everyone has been able to relate to at some point,” Henning told Poets&Quants. “Yet, it’s oddly and surprisingly insightful, revealing the danger of confusing reporting structures, business politics, low morale, and unclear communication.”
Of course, some movies supply insights to MBAs without focusing on business When it comes to cinema, Dartmouth Tuck’s Sophia Cornew gained her best takeaways from a certain series by J.K. Rowling. “Honestly, growing up with the Harry Potter series taught me that solving really hard problems requires having people you unconditionally trust on your side, a willingness to bend the rules, and, sometimes, a little bit of magic.”
Henning and Cornew are two members of the 2019 graduating class who found business inspiration through the theater. As part of P&Qs’ Best & Brightest MBAs series, we asked nominees to share their favorite movies about business – and the biggest lessons they gained from them. From The Big Short to Star Wars, here are 25 movies that continue to guide some of this year’s most promising MBA graduates.
“My favorite movie about business is Wall Street. It’s pretty old. In the movie, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is a high-rolling businessman who is idolized by a young broker named Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen). Bud spends half the movie trying to get Gekko as a client but in the process has to compromise his values to do so.
Whenever I watch this movie it always reminds me to never compromise who I am just to get ahead. In the movie, Bud ruins his relationship with his father by bridging a deal that would have liquidated his father’s company, subsequently laying off hundreds of blue-collar workers in the process. In some ways, the movie is emblematic of how easy it is to jeopardize our relationships and our values just to reach success. It was also foreshadowing because the movie was released just before the stock market crash in October 1987.”
Orvil Savery, University of Missouri (Trulaske)
“Wall Street is not only one of my favorite movies about business, but it’s also one of my favorite movies about life. Whenever I watch Michael Douglas deliver Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech, I get chills. Most people tell me the purpose of Wall Street is a cautionary tale; greed and excess will land you in jail. While I understand that point of view, to me, Wall Street means so much more. Wall Street taught me that business has the power to transform lives in both positive and negative ways. The movie also taught me that there is nothing wrong with being hungry for success or “greedy” as Gekko would say. However, the movie demonstrates that to achieve success and transform my life and society in positive ways, it is critical to play within the rules of the game and to conduct business in an ethical manner. Overall, Wall Street taught me that business is one of the most powerful means to financial and personal success, but without being an ethical leader, failure is bound to happen.”
Luke Wareham, Georgia Tech (Scheller)
“Office Space really encapsulates the joys/frustrations of traditional corporate America. The biggest lesson I learned from it was the importance of treating employees as people not as numbers. Doing so will cultivate a better corporate culture and create easier organizational change. Also, it will result in less damage to office technology.”
Joy Mina, U.C.-Irvine (Merage)
“Office Space – Don’t let yourself get stagnant, always look for the next role that will challenge and motivate you. Also, be wary of co-workers named Milton.”
Claire Battafarano, Michigan State (Broad)
“Easy call here–Office Space. Great illustration of the tradeoff between control and innovation in an organization. It also teaches us not to take ourselves too seriously and about the inescapable power of organizational culture.”
Vito Errico, Yale SOM
“Umm…yeah…I’m gonna have to go ahead and choose Office Space. First, I’ve watched it 10+ times and it’s funny every time. Second, it painted a visceral picture of a truly demotivating manager and office culture. In a roundabout way, this movie has inspired me to seek out fulfilling work environments and colleagues that genuinely care about seeing each other thrive.”
Haesun (Jess) Seok, Wharton School
“While this may be a weird one, I would say Office Space. While this may be an amusing movie about mundane office life, there are many lessons to be learned. Two important lessons are about communication and engaging your employees. Leaders should address problems before they become bigger issues (Milton and the constant communication issue). Also, engaged employees help the company grow, disengaged employees find ways to escape, and the actively disengaged just want to bring the whole system down (Peter hacking into the company to divert small amounts of money into his account).”
Matthew Rosebaugh, Ohio State (Fisher)
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