Three routes to engage with the ‘hidden potential’ of the SDGs in the context of management education and leadership development
By Lars Moratis and Frans Melissen, holders of the Chair in Management Education for Sustainability, a joint initiative by Antwerp Management School and Breda University of Applied Sciences.
REGISTER: 14 OCT 2021 Courageous Conversation
The GRLI is pleased to announce a 14 October event at 1500 CEST with Lars Moratis exploring the major points explored in the following article on the hidden potential embedded in teaching the SDGs. Look for an invitation to register via email and on Twitter.
With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) having become a central point of reference for businesses worldwide that aspire to address grand sustainability challenges, the SDGs have also entered the realm of management education and leadership development. In fact, according to recent reports by the Financial Times, the Global Goals have been adopted by many business schools around the world as a guiding framework for integrating sustainability into their curriculums. Recent research also shows that business schools are using the SDGs as part of their quest to achieve legitimacy after two decades of critique following their role in episodes of economic and societal turmoil.
However, so far, the ways in which many management education and leadership development programs address the SDGs reflect rather basic, one-dimensional, and, to put it bluntly, deficient interpretations of the SDGs. Such interpretations tend to be overly issue-based, viewing the SDGs merely as a relevant, comprehensive, and internationally accepted spectrum of sustainability issues. As such, they fail to recognize the interdependencies between individual SDGs and fail to acknowledge their indivisible and integrative nature. Also, the SDGs have fallen victim to the dominant sustainability discourse, in which societal challenges are framed as market opportunities, sources of innovation, or impact investments. In management education today, the SDGs are usually reduced to some form of a business case, with this interpretation of the SDGs overshadowing other more meaningful perspectives on the societal challenges they represent.
It is important to note that relying on such interpretations only scratches the surface when it comes to tapping into the full learning potential of the SDGs. In fact, from an educational perspective, there is a lot more to the SDGs than meets the eye. By taking a different look at the SDGs, we therefore offer three routes to engage with the ‘hidden potential’ of the SDGs in the context of management education and leadership development:
- Addressing tensions. Sustainability is a much more spurious concept than it appears at face value. In fact, the SDGs themselves represent inherent tensions, trade-offs and paradoxes. One of the more eye-catching tensions is that between the socially-oriented and ecologically-oriented SDGs. A detailed look at the SDGs indicators reveals that social development indicators outflank those related to ecological indicators. As social development tends to come at the cost of ecological development, this represents a thorny problem. A similar observation can be made for tensions between SDG8 (Decent work and economic growth) on the one hand and SDG13 (Climate action), SDG14 (Life below water), and SDG15 (Life on land) on the other. In addition, critical assessments of the SDGs have generally lacked since their inception (see here for a brief critical exposé by us). Simultaneously, explicitly addressing such tensions, trade-offs, and paradoxes in education offers opportunities to stimulate profound reflections on (economic) value creation and business-society relations and could encourage management educators to accommodate for conflicting and interrelated concerns. As such, the SDGs actually open doors for more creative and provocative management teaching, research, and theory-building, including the development of new narratives that challenge and provide alternatives for (green) growth and the business case for sustainability.
- Addressing activism. If one thing has become abundantly clear based on the past two decades of attention for sustainability, it is that business as usual is not taking us in the right direction — not even close, actually. That conclusion can hardly come as a surprise since the majority of efforts to integrate sustainability into business is based on a concept of sustainable business that is, among other things, incremental, atomic, and instrumental (see our inaugural lecture in which we expound on this in detail). Achieving the SDGs requires a more radical approach that urges business schools to develop an activist posture towards the urgent and complex challenges represented by this agenda. In the end, the SDGs call for nothing less than a thorough rethink of economic, political, social, and cultural systems and we should recognize that business schools have a key role to play in challenging and changing these systems. Consequently, management educators should take a non-neutral position towards the sustainability agenda, explicitly campaign for it, and engage in engendering radical change.
- Addressing emotions. Whereas the SDGs offer a rather comprehensive view on today’s grand sustainability challenges, the fact of the matter is that these challenges — each of them on its own, let alone the sum of them — can be quite overwhelming for both management students and educators alike. Reflecting on and letting sink in the difficulties related to the technical operationalization of the SDGs, their geographical scope and complexity, their interdependencies, associated dilemmas concerning desired ways of action, and the lack of actual progress thus far in realizing sustainability, to name just a few, can trigger hefty emotional responses. As management educators, we have probably all witnessed various instances of students experiencing intense feelings of disappointment, self-doubt, despair, and other illustrations of negative emotional affect. Within management education and leadership development it is of pivotal importance to not neglect or even dismiss these feelings. Instead, it is crucial to acknowledge and accommodate for such feelings and the emotional and mental exhaustion that learning about and working on sustainability may result in. At the very least, students should be encouraged to develop the ability to engage in self-care and be stimulated to think about how they want to relate to the world, in the various identities they have and will develop.
While we think these three routes may open up new horizons for addressing the SDGs beyond more simple applications, they obviously do not constitute an exhaustive list of ways to tap into the hidden potential that the SDGs hold for management education and leadership development. In the spirit of SDG17, we invite everyone involved in management education and leadership development to add to the list and share their ideas and experiences.
If anything, we should not shy away from the complexities of sustainable development but rather embrace these to develop and deliver societally relevant and impactful management education. As management educators, we need to encourage and enable our students to dig as deep into the concept as possible to truly foster understanding and incite action. Only then will we succeed in creating transformational and systemic change, making ‘business as usual’ a thing of the past.
Lars Moratis and Frans Melissen are the holders of the Chair in Management Education for Sustainability, a joint initiative by Antwerp Management School and Breda University of Applied Sciences.
This blogpost is based on their article ‘Bolstering Responsible Management Education through the Sustainable Development Goals: Three Perspectives’ that was recently published in Management Learning.