Harvard’s Nitin Nohria: what does this appointment mean?

Well done Harvard. That is my immediate reaction to yesterday’s news that Nitin Nohria, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, will be taking over as the schools’s new dean on July 1. He is not the “safety first” candidate. He is on the record as having declared – in the Harvard Business Review, no less – that managers have “lost legitimacy” in the wake of corporate scandals, and that business has a lot of work to do to win back the public’s trust.

Together with his colleague Rakesh Khurana, Prof Nohria has challenged the orthodoxy that claimed there was little wrong with the conventional MBA syllabus or with the approach taken by the élite business schools. Both of these things played a part in contributing to the over-confident mentality which dominated business and finance, and which led to the great financial crisis. By appointing Prof Nohria, Harvard University has signalled that it is not frightened of debate, or reform – indeed, it wants to play a leading role in both these activities.

Listening to Harvard President Drew Faust last night, it was clear how seriously she has taken this appointment. Since January she has been holding meetings every two weeks with 12 members of HBS faculty (and three other academics from Harvard) to discuss the successor to Jay Light. Around 30 other members of HBS faculty have also approached her to share their views on the matter. President Faust also consulted widely with Harvard alumni and figures from the business world. It all sounds a bit like the selection process at Goldman Sachs! (Perhaps not an ideal comparison in the circumstances.)

In fact, President Faust is living up to a commitment she made at the HBS Centennial event in October 2008. She said then that the school had to make sure it was educating leaders who not only made a difference in the world, but also “for the world”. That pointed remark gave a clue to her thinking. This appointment bears it out.

Prof Nohria’s CV informs us that in 2007 he co-authored a book called “Paths to Power”, in which “he chronicles how leaders from different backgrounds – some who could be considered insiders and others who were outsiders – rose to power in American business.” Prof Nohria is the first foreign-born dean of HBS. At the early age of 48 he has made a giant leap down his own path to power. It will be fascinating to watch what he does next.

PS  As well as being an expert on leadership and ethics, Prof Nohria has written extensively on organisational behaviour. As dean of a business school, he is sure to be on the receiving end of a great deal of “behaviour” from now on. He will need all of his expertise if he is to cope.

About the authors

Stefan Stern writes a column on Tuesdays on management. He is winner of the 2010 Towers Watson award for excellence in HR journalism, and has previously won awards from the Work Foundation and the Management Consultancies Association.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of Business Life, the FT's management features section, and a former editor of the Mastering Management series. He joined the FT in 2000 from Prospect magazine

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