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Editorial: Tuck’s Welcome New Admission Emphasis on ‘Nice’


Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Fans of the sitcom MASH may recall how the unctuous Maj. Frank Burns turned to putty on being introduced to a comely young visitor to the 4077th. “Everyone’s been so terrific about being nice to me,” the visitor says. Before devolving into nervous schoolboy giggles, Frank blubbers: “It’s nice to be nice … to the nice.”

Well, sure. In fact, it’s nice to be nice to everybody. For some it’s a commandment: to love their neighbors as they love themselves. For others, though, especially those engaged in highly competitive pursuits, being “nice” can be seen as a sign of weakness. Nice guys, it is said, finish last.

The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth disagrees. As staff writer John Lippman reported on Sunday, Tuck has updated its admission criteria and will now assess applicants on their academic and career accomplishments, as usual, and also on their “emotional intelligence, empathy and respect for others.” Successful candidates in the highly competitive admission process will be able to demonstrate that they are “smart, nice, accomplished and aware.”

Luke Anthony Pena, Tuck’s new executive director of admissions and financial aid, told Lippman that evaluating applicants on such traits as their ability to collaborate and to build consensus, and their “EQ” — the emotional equivalent of IQ — is “a bold declaration of the values that have long defined Tuck in the business school landscape.”

Tuck more or less invented the business school landscape — it was founded in 1900 as the world’s first graduate school of management — so its new emphasis on the importance of empathy, respect and interpersonal skills, which other business schools also have adopted in recent years, likely will have wide influence. And that is to be welcomed.

Business leaders with abusive personalities — arrogant, manipulative, self-absorbed, uncaring, willing to lie, unwilling to listen — were once celebrated (we’re looking at you, Forbes and Fortune). Companies were eager to overlook such narcissistic personality traits in the belief that these Gordon Gekko-like characters would lead them to the promised land of huge profits and market domination. And in some cases they did. But in a recent study, Charles A. O’Reilly, of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and colleagues Bernadette Doerr and Jennifer A. Chatman, of the University of California, Berkeley, found that these CEOs and their “rampant hubris” also posed serious threats to their companies.

Once these narcissists and their big, swinging egos settle into the corner office, they’re “more likely to engage in questionable tax-avoidance schemes, to manipulate accounting data, to overpay for corporate acquisitions, and to seek excessive compensation,” according to a report on the study by Insights, a publication of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. They’re also apt to put their organizations in legal jeopardy. “Not only are they more likely to become embroiled in protracted litigation,” the report said, “but their personality traits make them less sensitive to objective assessments of risk. Narcissists are less willing to take advice from experts and to settle lawsuits — even when it’s likely that the company will lose.”

The havoc they wreak is felt throughout the whole operation. “They want control, so they create these corporate environments full of fear, where people are afraid of what the boss is going to say,” O’Reilly told Insights. There tends to be less collaboration in this kind of an environment, he added, and because narcissists don’t care about the rules, the integrity of the entire organization suffers.

While Tuck’s emphasis on interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and empathy as part of its admission process is new for the school, connecting business success with integrity is not. “What Tuck is implementing is a reaffirmation of what the school has been all along,” John Byrne, who covers business schools for the San Francisco-based news website Poets & Quants, told Lippman. For example, in the wake of the corporate scandals that brought down the leaders of Tyco International, Enron, WorldCom and others in the early years of this century, Tuck enhanced its curriculum’s focus on business ethics. (And for good reason. As The Economist once noted, “MBAs lay as thick on the ground at Enron as managerial hubris.”) In 2004, Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of management at Tuck and author of the book Why Smart Executives Fail, published a related paper, “The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives,” that hit many of the points O’Reilly and his colleagues made in their recent study. Habit No. 3, for example: “They think they have all the answers.”

Today, Tuck highlights the need for effective business leaders to recognize that their success, and the success of the organizations they lead, “is intertwined with broader ethical and social issues,” and all Tuck students are required to take at least one course that explores those issues.

We do not know if this approach will lead to a new era of collaborative, consensus-building business leaders who respect their employees, their customers and the communities in which they operate.

But that would be, in a word, nice.