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Looking inward: Business school’s most important class is not-for-credit

Skoll Scholar and MBA student Songqiao Yao is a researcher, prostate activist and entrepreneur working on global environmental sustainability issues such as food, diagnosis water, and climate change. 

It seems only yesterday when I walked into an ocean of over 300 new MBAs, all in formal dark suits, eager to meet each other. Six weeks in, everyone is buried shoulder deep in coursework readings, group projects, rowing outings, countless social events and multiple recruiter presentations every day. Said Business School and the wider Oxford seems to be an overwhelming intellectual machine and we all jumped onto the fastest ride, seeking to maximise our time and take in all the amazing opportunities.

As I look at my completely booked-out schedule with different colour blocks overlapping with each other, I realised that I have been lazy in another form of learning, the one about tending to your inner voice. Especially among a big group of over-achievers, it is too easy to fall into the trap of imposter syndrome, or feel like whatever we have achieved previously is not enough. We are all compensating by signing up for another personal development workshop, careers event, or master class. Business school provides a wonderful opportunity to hear and learn from all kinds of industries, people and organizations. It is easy to focus all our attentions externally, simply because there are so many amazing speakers, workshops, debates and opportunities to acquire one more skillset or toolkit for success. On the last day of Launch, the orientation program for new students, the biggest worries and fears for all the new class as a collective are Careers and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

Naming and facing this fear and insecurity is hard, and takes courage. While the wonderful courses at SBS teach us useful tactics to equip ourselves, the personal reflective practice requires a disciplined personal practice. The space for authentic, whole self, grounded in our personal values and presence, is what Otto Scharmer calls the “blindspot of leadership”. This inner space is where all of us need to start from and come back to, when we are faced with too many external options or extreme challenges. Dominic Barton, when giving the final keynote speech for MBA launch, mentioned that truly transformative leadership is rooted in character. Behaviours and tactics, which are more commonly associated with good leadership practices, are built on the foundation of character. In other words, who we are is more important than what we do and how we do it.

I truly agree with many of our professors that we live at a great moment in human history, with unprecedented challenges and enormous opportunities. As we have learned in our Global Opportunities and Threat class, the risky, uncertain and unpredictable future is already here. What we do now will directly affect our future, and who we are as individuals directly affects society as a whole. Taking advantage of the vast Oxford network, I find myself in a seminar on systems-thinking in the Geography department. Businesses traditionally have solved many “tame”, or structured, targeted problems. However, the future presents more “wicked problems” or even “super-wicked” problems. These complex issues are intractable, and we have incomplete knowledge both of the solutions and of the unexpected consequences. We all know too well from the international development space that those that try to solve the problem may even be contributing to exacerbating the problem. As Saïd Business School seeks to tackle world-scale problems as a world-class business school embedded in a world-class university, I feel the urgency to bring attention to our inner space.

Aligning our values with what we do can have tremendous benefits for our work and life. Kurt April during his one-day workshop focusing on values showed us that our stress level actually goes down and our body goes into restorative mode, when we are engaged in work that we truly care about. However, getting to that space takes many attempts, constant examination, and realignment with our everyday engagement in the world with our inner values. This cannot be achieved by a two-day personal branding workshop, or a one-day leadership development course, but will be ongoing theme in the days ahead of us.

Although I sometimes find myself frustrated at the external-focused mentality that could be infectious at business school, and feeling impatient at traditional ways of teaching and learning in basic business courses, I do realize that what is happening at Oxford Saïd is representative of the bigger society. However, like seeds that may blossom in the future, I am loving finding out and actively participate in shaping business school to be a more conscious, nurturing space that allows all of us to get in touch with our whole, authentic selves. The lovely garden as a perfect space for meditation, the inspiration of those who work at the Skoll centre, the reflective exercises during Launch, leadership fundamentals, the student-organized mindfulness training and yoga classes, and the many beautiful vulnerable moments of seemingly polished and well-spoken MBA cohorts continue to inspire me and keep me working hard in my personal goals, to pay attention to our blindspots: Our inner selves.