How accurate is “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School”?

Great blog. Applying to HBS this year, but read this book and found it entertaining and disturbing at the same time. Your thoughts? http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article4443213.ece

The Harvard MBA says:

I can’t tell you how many emails/questions/notes I’ve gotten about Philip Broughton’s new book, “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School“.

I guess part of running a blog called “Ask The Harvard MBA” is being called upon to opine about all things HBS.

I freely admit that I haven’t read the book.  I’m not planning on enriching Mr. Broughton, though if he wants to send me a free review copy, I’ll be happy to post a follow-up.

What I will do is to address the specific criticisms of HBS listed in the Times Online review.  They are:

1) A student guide advises prospective students not to bring guitars, literature and history books, or cynicism.

VERDICT: Bullshit

Criticizing a school based on a random quote from a student publication is just silly.  As for the specific points, 1) HBS puts on a musical, complete with orchestra, every year.  2) Literature and history is a major part of courses such as “The Moral Leader” and “Business History”.  3) Cynicism and skepticism are just as important at HBS as anywhere else.  When I was there, I wrote editorials criticizing the administration for a variety of sins and I was far from alone.  At one point, our Editor-in-Chief and Publisher had to defy direct orders from the Dean not to cover certain topics.  We certainly weren’t simply swallowing whatever the school was selling.  You would think an experienced hack (an affectionate term Brits use for journalists) would look deeper.

2) The author is surprised by the number of earnest Mormons and former military men, whom he believes help create an oppressive atmosphere of “unquestioning obedience and creepy religiosity.”

VERDICT: Partially true.

HBS is run by Mormons.  Kim Clark, Steve Wheelwright, Clay Christiansen…all members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints.  The school is also full of military veterans, both on the faculty and in the student body.  But it certainly doesn’t create an atmosphere of unquestioning obedience and creepy religiosity.

There’s no question in my mind that the administration would prefer unquestioning obedience and eternal fealty to the altar of HBS.  The dirty secret of HBS, as with most schools, is that the MBA program is simply a means of generating alumni.  That’s where the real money and influence comes from.

We would often joke about how the administrator much preferred the tractable (and more lucrative) Executive Education program to dealing with MBA students.  It’s also true that the campus is frighteningly manicured to the point where the musical I helped write featured a scene with a sobbing Dean convening a meeting to discuss the unthinkable: The appearance of a dandelion on the campus.

But anyone who believes that MBA students are obedient and devout clearly doesn’t know how people actually think and act.

3) Students work on exercises that are filled with psychobabble like, “I do not take on the negative energy of the insecure…I stay centred…I try to model the message of integrity, growth and transformation.”

VERDICT: Partially true.

Yep, the school does have people do stuff like that.  But jeez, nobody but a complete tool would actually take it without a grain of salt.  And even psychobabble can hold a seed of truth.  What exactly is bad about avoiding insecurity, staying centered, and promoting integrity, growth, and transformation?

4) A student writes to the school to apologize for urinating on another student’s door.

VERDICT: Probably true, but what of it?

My guess is that the administration told him to apologize or face expulsion.  Given that choice, I’d do the same thing.  But urinating on another student’s door is pretty tame.  During one bachelor party, several of my classmates urinated on the doors of “The Golden Banana” strip club after the bouncers refused to accept our international friends because they didn’t have U.S. identification.  That resulted in a band of police cruisers chasing down our chartered bus.

5) HBS graduates go to the school to make boatloads of money, but delude themselves into believeing that their actions are morally good.  “Any notion that such jet-setting plutocrats are truly concerned about the rest of us, or the planet, or the future, is laughable.”

VERDICT: Partially true, but so what?

I went to HBS to make money.  So did most of my classmates.  No one has any illusions in that regard.  But I will quote Gordon Gekko and state that, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

At this point in history, I think it’s pretty clear that Adam Smith was right, and that the invisible hand of capitalism is the best way to guide the allocation of resources.  Business in general, and HBS in particular, are the instantiation of capitalism, the greatest economic system ever devised.  (Cue patriotic music) We may not be Mother Teresa, but the function we perform has helped to lift billions out of poverty.  Capitalism has helped more people in India than Mother Teresa, and I see no reason to be ashamed of it.

Damned pinko commies.

The grand irony, of course, is that after writing his hit job of a book, Broughton is now using his book tour to pimp out his new podcasting company:

“Delves Broughton is finally putting his MBA skills to use. After flirting with an idea for a ‘very high end laundry firm’, he’s now setting up a cutting-edge podcast company with a friend. ‘It is a turbulent frontier world, and enormous fun to inhabit, whatever becomes of our venture.’”

Look, the bottom line is that HBS is what it is: The world’s most famous business school, a fun two years, and a great place to network and get a well-paying job.

Yes, many of the students are arrogant (my wife has commented that HBS polished my existing arrogance to new, shinier heights), yes the administration preaches conformity and tries to eliminate the messiness of life, and yes, we’re not necessarily saints.  But it’s silly for anyone to expect otherwise.

As for Mr. Broughton’s new book, an old saying seems apropos: “The lady doth protest too much.”

17 Comments

  1. admin
    Posted August 25, 2008 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Brian makes ane excellent point about HBS and and Mormonism:

    “I don’t doubt that the primary goal of HBS is to generate successful alumni (read donors). Success if often equated with making boatloads of money. Mormons regularly give a percentage of their income (10%) to the LDS church as tithing. If HBS seeks donors, it makes sense to seek out those who have a history of regularly donating their money to a cause/group.”

    Great point.

    http://sigwang.blogspot.com/2008/08/harvard-mba-responds.html

  2. Posted August 26, 2008 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    Whoops! Excuse the typo in the second sentence, what I meant to say is “success is often equated with making boatloads of money”.

  3. olivier cardon
    Posted August 27, 2008 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Classmate of Chris Yeh, European, I concord with Chris’s views on the book. I read part of the book and my guess is that Broughton is just playing the publishing game: making a couple of over-the-top assertions to be reviewed and get attention.

    As far as HBS is concerned, it is like anything else: it is what you make of it. If you want to be a cynic and play guitar nobody will beat you with a stick. Thinking of it I actually took some painting classes while at Harvard and had quite some fun going out and traveling and doing lots of sports.

    Re: Mormons and former military men: it is pretty much a non-issue. Nobody is trying to convert you, and the few former military men I befriended were really nice guys. I was there pre-2001 some things might have changed a bit but I don’t think so.

    Last but not least, there are some people at Harvard who actually want to do good and make our world a better place. Quite a few went to work in non-profit organizations and are doing a hell of a job. If that’s what you are after, HBS has an excellent track-record/curriculum/network in that field.

    Again, like anything else, it’s what you want to make of it.

  4. Ben
    Posted August 28, 2008 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    I think you need to read the book before you make comments. You too Olivier, you read “part of the book” and that entitles you to commentary on his writing. Your comment is just as bad as what you are implying that he is doing. The reviews take some of his writing out of context - and the fact that you are commenting on their interpretation is kinda lazy.

  5. admin
    Posted August 28, 2008 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Ben, as I explained in my post, I have no intention of putting any more money in Broughton’s pocket. If you want to send me your copy, I’ll be happy to read it and report back.

  6. Ben
    Posted August 28, 2008 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Ok, send me a mailing address and when I’m done with it (should be this week) I’ll send it to you (if you promise to send it back, that is). I would actually love to hear your opinion as I am planning on applying to HBS in the next couple years. Thanks.

  7. admin
    Posted August 28, 2008 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Ben,

    I’ll send you the address via email. No worries, I’ll send it back when you’re done. Or, if you’re in the Bay Area, we can meet up to effect the transfer.

    I love it when a reader steps up like this!

  8. michael
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    “Capitalism has helped more people in India than Mother Teresa, and I see no reason to be ashamed of it.”

    Wow….that is a big statement, what do you mean by “help”? I don’t really see your logics.

    It is a little shocking to hear this from a HBS grad.

  9. admin
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ve received Ben’s copy of “Ahead of the Curve” and will try to read it and respond in the next week or two. Thanks Ben!

  10. admin
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Michael,

    Here’s a simple thought experiment to explain why capitalism has helped more people in India than Mother Teresa:

    Assume that Mother Teresa and her outfit were able to help 100 people per day, every day, for 40 years. That’s some 14.6 million people (and that’s assuming that it was a different 100 people every day).

    That’s 1.5% of the population. What percentage of the population of India is better off because of capitalism today? According to Wikipedia, the Indian middle class numbers anywhere from 200-300 million people, all of whose lives are substantively better because of capitalism.

    The cars we drive, the food we eat, the computers we write posts and comments on would not exist without capitalism. Sure seems like a noble pursuit to me.

  11. Posted October 2, 2008 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    What exactly is bad about avoiding insecurity, staying centered, and promoting integrity, growth, and transformation?

    Chris you know damn well integrity has no place in business.

  12. Posted December 26, 2008 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Got my copy at the library.
    Reviewed it here:
    http://lawreligionculturereview.blogspot.com/2008/10/book-revie-ahead-of-curve-by-philip.html

  13. Posted January 9, 2009 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Chris: I’m shocked you didn’t think of making an inter-library loan request. Admittedly, when I did one recently for a video, it did ask me for a maximum on what I’d be willing to pay… but you wouldn’t be enriching the author in this case, and being as famously skinflinted as you are, you could simply put a $1 cap on the cost.

    Or are you simply trying to encourage publishers to send you free books for review purposes? :)

  14. yalephd
    Posted November 13, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Um, the book isn’t negative about HBS. It’s mainly Philip’s observations and growth there.

    Try reading the book before commenting on it.

    I’m sure you have better things to do like bankrupt energy companies or the economy.

  15. James Glenn
    Posted June 1, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    I just read Phillips book. I had been meaning to read it for a while now. I enjoyed it as a good read, but I’m not a big fan of the author. Here’s my reaction to it:

    While I do understand the stresses of being in a highly competitive environment,I feel annoyed by his cynicism, and need to feel-goodery attitude because these are clearly predictable side effects of being in a demanding environment. It seems he never could get control of his skeptical nature.

    I was most intrigued, excited, inspired, and I felt edified by even his briefest paraphrasing of lectures he described while he seemed exasperated and lost all the time. I think he felt incredibly insecure, which makes sense because he didn’t really know what the hell he wanted to do or what he could do, and he had a family to provide for. He felt emboldened by Google’s interest in him, but eventually fell back into his cynical, high-horse ways, while feeling ambivalent toward finally capitulating to the demands of the job hunt, even though he had a supercharged credential with a very solid promise of great financial reward, a feeling that many people will never have the chance to experience (which is way he often qualifies his public criticism by saying something like “Oh, I loved Harvard, and appreciated the experience”). It seemed like he railed against the institution as a coping mechanism for his intellectual insecurity. All the Other students in his section, even those who also felt annoyed or insecure at times with the course material nevertheless found jobs like grownups (I wouldn’t be able to admit that I didn’t find a job if I were him. I would feel too embarrassed, personally). It didn’t seem like he ever reconciled the fact of his lack of expertise or experience in business, so when something seemed particularly hard to understand, rather then grill the professor to make sense of the lesson, he simply characterized it as non-sense, while describing his appreciation for throngs of working-class people protesting the powers that be - people that, in all honesty most likely know nothing about running a business themselves or managing resources, would most likely view economic sense with suspicion when it doesn’t seem to enrich them to their satisfaction (Which, admittedly, I too would feel the same way, I’m sure), and would most likely be just as susceptible to narcissisism and self-preservation as any business owner (which, again, I am just as vulnerable to).

    In the end, his book seems like cry for help disguised as a valiant expose of a conspiracy of an elite group of Mormons and Military Veterans. What I take from this is that when I finally - if I ever get the chance - get to graduate school (my hope for the near future) I can expect to feel like a little kid again bickering with no-it-all adults (until I get a grownups’ salary).

  16. Skip
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    In hindsight, the comments in this post about greed being good seem like the utmost jackassery. Maybe the journalist was onto something.

  17. admin
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Skip,

    Greed is good because it helps allocate resources appropriately. What isn’t so good is when the game itself is rigged so that some parties have an unfair advantage.

One Trackback

  1. […] Thanks to Ben, who generously sent me his copy of “Ahead of the Curve” to review, I’m about halfway through the book.  The midway report is that while I still have a number of criticisms of the book, at least based on what I’ve read to date, it seems like the author, Philip Delves Broughton, got jobbed by the reviewers and press coverage who sensationalized a few small incidents from the book into a expose, rather than portraying it for what it is: A good memoir of one man’s experiences at HBS. […]

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