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First semester is in full swing. I’m taking three courses - Introduction to Corporate Finance, Introduction to Accounting, and a class called New Models of Business in Society. The latter two courses are offered through Coursera, and they operate just like regular university courses, sans the classroom. One nice thing about Coursera courses is that while you are held to a schedule, there are new courses starting all the time. My accounting class, for example, started this week and runs for the next ten weeks. New Models of Business in Society started three weeks ago and runs for five weeks.

Finance and accounting are “hard skills” classes involving numbers, spreadsheets, and generally accepted rules and principles. New Models in of Business Society is part of a unit on leadership that I am including in my first year curriculum. For the purposes of my MBA, I am approaching leadership as “ways of thinking about work in life and society.”  New Models takes a macro view of how businesses are perceived to act, how they ought to act, and how they do act. The professor, R. Edward Freeman, a business ethicist, is leading us through the progression of thought on corporate citizenship, from corporate philanthropy a la Andrew Carnegie to the emerging view that corporations can work towards a better world as part of their core business.

For another piece of my leadership unit, I’m reading books on the role of work in our lives, specifically how to maximize personal productivity and fulfillment. One of the best books on this topic is Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. Pink argues that work is fulfilling when it addresses three fundamental needs: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This three part formulation really appeals to me, and I can clearly identify times in my own life when my work has fallen into this sweet spot, meeting all three criteria - and times when it hasn’t. I know that I work best when I am able to choose when and how to work, when I am doing tasks that are challenging enough to require my full attention, and when I can see that my work is contributing to a worthy goal.

When I was in the Peace Corps I worked with a youth group. One day, I asked the kids in the youth group what their favorite activities were. Most of the boys and girls said things like, “I like to play baseball,” or, “I like riding a bike.” But one boy surprised me by saying, “I like to work.”
“Really? That’s your favorite activity, work?” I asked him.
He nodded. Yes, he liked to work.

I thought it was weird for a kid to list work as his preferred activity, but I’ve thought about his answer in the years since that conversation. After reading Daniel Pink’s book, I realized that one of my favorite activities is also work - provided that the work meets those three criteria of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Another great book on this topic - a new book - is Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success by G. Richard Shell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Shell makes a similar argument about the importance of “meaningful work” to overall personal happiness. Finally, on the topic of work and life, I highly recommend Jason Fried’s TED Talk, “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work,” in which he talks about the types of environments in which people do their best work - not usually the office during working hours.

Between Freeman’s course, the books, and assorted TED Talks, I’m getting both the global view and the personal view of what work and business could and should be like. To round out my leadership unit, I’m looking for resources that address the role of managers - both in encouraging the people they manage to do their best work and in pushing their companies to be the best citizens they can be. Your suggestions welcome.

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