Managing ourselves: The business of the liberal arts

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Midway through last fall semester, a student dropped by to talk about her career goals. Unlike most students in my Principles of Management course, she was majoring in psychology.  We chatted about her graduate school plans, and I asked her how the class was going. She leaned forward, her voice bright with surprise, and exclaimed, "I never knew there was so much psych in management!"

It's a comment I often hear from students: "I didn't know how important people skills are. It's not what I thought management was about."  

Early in the course, students learn one of the "official" definitions of management—"getting work done through other people." Often when we think about a manager, we picture the pointy-haired boss from the Dilbert comic strip, who maintains that "to be a successful manager, you must learn to be insensitive to the needs of your employees." What we discover together is that management is not the title we earn after years of enduring the wrath of a series of pointy-haired bosses, but a concept we use on a daily basis. The core elements of management—planning, organizing, leading and controlling—are essential activities in our lives.     

We learn that what makes management so difficult is that our most valuable assets are not the cool lofted office buildings with paninis and sushi nor the strength of the technical fortress around our data. The resources that make or break us, in any type of organization, are our people. Understanding, developing and learning from these complex and unpredictable assets represents the core of good management.

One of the many reasons I love teaching business at a liberal arts college is how closely this idea relates to students' development as a whole person. Managing and leading in today's global workplace is challenging and dynamic, and Luther's mission statement reminds us that we must be "equipped to understand and confront a changing society." No management textbook or best-selling leadership book can prepare us for all of that. Embracing that change starts with managing ourselves, and seeing how we can best contribute and serve the larger community.


Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”
The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”  

-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass

In the first week of class, we talk about the planning part of management—or, as the poet Mary Oliver might coach us, "What shall we do with our one wild and precious life?" We discuss our dream careers—not just those jobs immediately in our reach after college graduation, but what we really want to do—who we want to be. Many students are hesitant at first to write these on paper and then to share them with a partner. Somehow this first reflection often feels scary—a commitment, of sorts, for many who are only in their second year at Luther. We start sharing these dreams and ideas to practice strategic planning and to build trust as a supportive learning community. We begin to see the importance of collaboration in solving the problem of figuring out our future. How can we help each other make these dreams more real? What are the specific decisions, skills and experiences we need to get from today to there? What are our current strengths and gaps? These career dreams often change from students' first day of class to their last—and really, throughout their lives—but we can begin somewhere. We can choose a road to explore.


“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Increasingly, the work we do today is team-based—we solve problems together and complete project tasks. Technology handles many of the low-level tasks we used to do; but our brains are still in high demand. Early in the semester, I tell students about the emphasis in our class on group activities and projects, and ask: "Who loves working in groups?" Typically no hands go up, and students regard me with expressions of dread, alarmed at the prospect of working collaboratively all semester. We learn about the principles of group work, how to best design a group, and which work should be done individually, not in groups. Students then see how their own teams progress through standard stages of development, and learn to observe their own behavior within the team setting. Would they rather do everyone else's tasks rather than suffer though a discussion? Or do they retreat and let others do the work? Do they like the role they naturally fill on a team or do they want to change? As the semester moves on, students work together on a number of problems and projects, including navigating messy ethics scenarios that force us to choose between two unsavory options—do we fudge some numbers or lay three people off?   


"If you think of the employees and culture as plants growing, I’m not trying to be the biggest plant for them to aspire to, I’m more trying to architect the greenhouse where they can all flourish and grow."

-Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos

In the leadership section of our course, we learn about Emotional Intelligence from expert Daniel Goleman, which looks at our relationship to our self (self-awareness and self-management) and to others (social awareness and relationship management). We discover how Google determined that EI is a much better predictor of managers' future success than technical skill. The exciting part for all of us (and how I often console myself on a day gone awry) is that we can keep getting better. Unlike the fixed measure of IQ, how we evolve as managers of ourselves, and someday of others, is something we can improve and strengthen every day both in and outside the classroom. We can stop talking and listen; we can remove an obstacle for someone else.     


“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”   

-Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook 

Towards the end of our course, students brainstorm the various control methods in their lives—performance measures that monitor their work as students, employees, athletes, interns, artists, family members and friends. Students notice many key performance indicators—an exam grade, a bank account balance, post-game feedback from a coach, or the cleanliness standards for a shared bathroom. Just as a business must constantly monitor its own performance with customers, finances, employees and shareholders, students assess their own performance from multiple levels, and must determine what corrective actions to take, what tradeoffs are necessary. Management experts like Peter Drucker caution us to choose the right metrics, for whatever we measure gets our attention. If we focus more on profit than customer service, our business may suffer. How do we balance these measures? Is a balance even possible? 

Even an efficiency expert like Drucker admits that true management involves something we cannot measure on a performance dashboard or insert into a PowerPoint presentation. "Your first role... is the personal one. It is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the identification of people, the creation of a community. This is something only you can do... It cannot be measured or easily defined. But it is not only a key function. It is one only you can perform.”

For a semester, we study the principles of management, and learn that they are, as my psychology student wisely noted, less about choosing the right silver bullets, and more about developing the best in our people. And after the course ends, we continue on with the real work of the liberal arts: studying the principles of ourselves.

Alexandra White

Alexandra White

Alexandra White, Luther College assistant professor of management, joined the Luther community after nearly 20 years working for a wide range of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, start-ups and management consulting groups. At Luther she teaches principles of management, data analysis for business decision making, project management, and introduction to business. In January 2018, she will co-teach PAD 450: Exploring the Ethics of Sustainable Organizations in Sweden and Norway.

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  • January 9 2015 at 10:33 pm
    Michael Harvey
    Nice piece. I get similar student reactions in my Organizational Behavior course. But a suggestion: Peter Drucker is not best understood as an 'efficiency expert.' He really was, over the course of his long career, the key intellectual figure championing the liberal-arts centered approach to management you are writing about here (and engaged in at Luther). The very title of this piece, no doubt intentionally, recalls Drucker's great 1999 Harvard Business Review article, "Managing Oneself." There, Drucker's central point is the importance of critical thinking--for instance in his discussion of 'feedback analysis,' a kind of action-oriented operationalization of the Delphic maxim, 'Know thyself.' I would also suggest that the venerable planning-organizing-leading-controlling framework may benefit from a reboot: learning, for one, belongs up there among the key managerial tasks--and, again, this attention to learning, and thus to asking questions, makes even more explicit the intimate but under-appreciated connection between the liberal-arts tradition and the best education for effective managers and leaders. Thanks for the stimulating food for thought. Michael Harvey Dept. of Business Management Washington College (Chestertown, Maryland)
  • January 12 2015 at 10:23 am
    Alexandra White

    Michael - Thank you so much for your very insightful remarks here, I appreciate you taking the time to offer them.  Thanks for your comment on Drucker; efficiency is just one small aspect of what he has taught us.   I really support your suggestion about adding "learning" to the established POLC cycle.  We talk often about our management course about the necessity of being a "learning organization," and how our survival and success is built on our ability to learn from mistakes, feedback, results, etc. and adjust accordingly.  Again, really appreciate your detailed and thoughtful analysis, and for contributing to this ongoing dialogue.  -Alexandra

  • January 14 2015 at 8:31 am
    Christine Douglas
    Really wonderful piece on management, Alexandra! It resonates so much with me as a long time manager, and as a human-being situated in a professional environment. Your blend of experience, practicality, wisdom, and compassion will surely be a benefit to your students as they prepare to begin their professional lives!
  • January 14 2015 at 10:13 am
    Alexandra White

    Christine - Thanks so much for your kind comment and support.  I am really glad to hear you enjoyed the blog and found it relevant to your work in management.  I love the chance to work with students during this threshold of their lives, and they have much to teach me as well!  -Alexandra

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