President Trump's recent, well-reported alleged slur regarding over 17% of the world's population has given rise to three reactions.
The first - from most of the civilized world - is outrage and disdain, not only for the indecent form of his alleged remarks, but also for the profound lack of understanding and appreciation for values that underpin the strength and vitality of modern societies and economies. The second reaction - from his political partisans - is silence, hoping that this too, as with past indiscretions, will pass. The third reaction from a collection of racists is glee, that their abhorrent approach was endorsed by the White House.
Given that this story has already dominated the news cycle, what can the American head of a British business school have to say that hasn't already been said? As Dean of the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School, my thoughts and actions centre on developing young leaders. We often call on the experiences of seasoned leaders as the case studies from which we can all learn. President Trump's actions are indeed a case study, but sadly not one that we would hope our students to emulate. This is especially true at my school.
Your perception may be that MBA students at my 800 year old institution would be mostly British. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Our community is unique - and stronger because of it. By design and with delight, we have almost the same fraction of students from Africa as from Europe, and about as many from North America as from Asia. We are a community where "everyone is a minority." While this is complicated at times, the resounding sense from our class is that this profound mixing of people from around the world is one of the strengths of the programme, even in an exceptional university.
There is a long line of research showing that diverse teams and organisations perform better than those that are less diverse. This is not to say that they are easier to manage, but that they can produce better results. Why? Because differences of background and opinion, when managed intelligently can lead to more robust conversations and decision making. When we bring our differences to bear, we can better understand the points of view of an ever-global set of customers, suppliers, regulators, competitors, and investors. We stereotype others as "those people" at our own risk. Homogeneity can be dangerous—and boring. A light example brings this home. I and many others might deem ourselves chocoholics, but few lovers of chocolate find bars with 100% cocoa content our snack of choice. Rather it is through combining different flavours, ingredients and textures that we produce amazing chocolates or other foods. Likewise this is true in management.
As an ex-patriate American in Britain, the differences I have experienced in language, traditions, practices, beliefs, and social standing have helped me grow personally as a manager. One day, waiting for a train, I overheard the conversation of two very "proper" professionals bemoaning "those people" (in this case, Americans) like me taking senior roles. While their comments represent a minority opinion, and while they were far less offensive than President Trump's, I felt hurt, angry and confused. Yet, as someone who helps to develop leaders, I was committed to use this small experience as my personal case study to learn more, understanding that many people face far greater challenges.
This relatively benign experience reminded me that we are all "the other" to someone. We can have two reactions - we can harden battle lines, point fingers, call names, demonise others, and retreat to our corners. Or we can try to understand and benefit from our differences, find areas of common agreement, and forge something new and better. This is not to betray our heritages and differences, but rather to celebrate them together.
Thank you, President Trump, for providing such vivid case studies for younger and older leaders. My takeaways? Lesson 1: We are all different and threatening to someone else, and we need to appreciate these differences if we are to be effective leaders. Lesson 2: While we are different, there are certain core values that are non-negotiable. Decency and respect are not optional. Class, please discuss!
Peter Tufano was appointed Peter Moores Dean and Professor of Finance at Saïd Business School in July 2011 and is a Professorial Fellow at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He is a prolific scholar and course developer, a seasoned academic leader, a social entrepreneur, and an advisor to business and government leaders.