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Harvard Business School dean is bent on change

Veteran teacher says distrust of corporate world is ‘untenable’

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By D.C. Denison and Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 10, 2010

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When Nitin Nohria, the new dean of Harvard Business School, introduced himself to its entering class on Tuesday, the late-summer atmosphere was festive, with some students dressed casually in polo shirts, shorts, and flip-flops.

But Nohria didn’t waste time on pleasantries. Instead, he launched into a detailed analysis of the school’s 10-word mission statement (“to educate leaders who make a difference in the world’’), dwelling extensively on concepts like character and value.

“I didn’t want it to be just bouquets and butterflies,’’ he said in his office later, as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

Nohria, 48, has taught at Harvard Business School for 22 years. He has written numerous books and dozens of academic articles on leadership and business ethics. In 2008, he coauthored the article that inspired the “MBA Oath’’ movement, which prompted thousands of graduate business students across the country to sign a pledge to behave responsibly in their careers.

Today, he’s in charge of one of the world’s leading business schools, famed for having produced generations of corporate managers and experts in finance, entrepreneurship, and corporate strategy.

Its 70,000 living alumni include former president George W. Bush and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, as well as such financial leaders as Henry Paulson, former US secretary of the Treasury.

The woman who appointed Nohria, Harvard University’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, said he possesses “a marvelous combination of valuing the strengths of Harvard Business School and also seeing ways that it can change.’’

Saying that “trust in business leaders is close to an all-time low,’’ Nohria seemed bent on change during an interview with the Globe. “Some of the criticisms are well-founded,’’ he said. “I think we can learn from them.’’

Many blame corporate leaders — including people trained at Harvard and other business schools — for the practices that led to the ongoing global economic crisis.

Nohria said he’s intent on changing the perception that business schools are “all about credentials and connections,’’ instead offering the view that the pursuit of an MBA degree is about “enhancing competence and character.’’

There is a widespread perception, he said, that business leaders have rigged the system so they can reap the rewards of success but let the public absorb the losses after failures.

“We have to move to the idea that if businesses creates value for society, they are justified in sharing in the rewards for that innovation,’’ he said. “But business leaders should not be claiming value where they haven’t created any.’’

Nohria said he intends to open Harvard Business School to wider influences, a job for which he feels particularly well suited.

Born in India, he received a bachelor of technology degree in chemical engineering in 1984 from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. He came to the United States to earn a PhD in management in 1988 from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and joined the Harvard Business School faculty soon afterward.

After being named dean last spring, Nohria took a whirlwind 10-day tour of economic capitals, including Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Mumbai. “We’re clearly going from a business world that was defined by American business to one that’s defined by global influences,’’ he said.

Nohria said his academic research has already informed what kind of leader he’s not going to be.

“I have no fantasy of being a charismatic visionary,’’ he said, adding that he considers that model of leadership a myth.

“Let’s face it: I am 5 feet, 6 inches, bald . . . ’’ he said. “Charisma is not the first word that comes to mind when people meet me. That’s not who I am, and that’s not what my appointment means.’’

Nohria said his leadership style will be “to harness the natural entrepreneurial energies that exist in a faculty like ours.’’

Still, some of his colleagues said they find him charismatic, even inspiring.

“There are a lot of smart people around here, but very few I’d be willing to line up behind,’’ said Scott Snook, an associate professor and retired US Army colonel. “He is one of the quickest minds I’ve come across at Harvard.’’

Another business school colleague, professor Rakesh Khurana, has worked with Nohria on a series of seminars on leadership.

“He spends time doing analysis and trying to understand the facts,’’ Khurana said, “but at the end of the day, he’s willing to act and make decisions.’’

Nohria said it’s too soon to say how Harvard Business School will change under his leadership, but change is inevitable.

“The current distrust between business and society is untenable,’’ he said. “Nothing is going to get done without the cooperation of business.’’ Nohria paused, as if trying to think of an important social goal that won’t be profoundly influenced by the business world’s involvement.

“I can’t think of one,’’ he said. “Health care reform, the environment — business has to play a role. Those reforms are not going to happen through government aid, or charity. It’s only going to happen if business plays not just a role, but a vital, imaginative, creative role.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com. Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, a story in Friday's Globe incorrectly cited the graduate school attended by Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer. Ballmer attended Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Ballmer attended Harvard University as an undergraduate.