Jeff Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, had a great article in today's Financial Times, "The Narcissistic World of the MBA Student" (November 8, 2010). Much of what Pfeffer had to say is relevant to success and leadership in education, whether on the part of the students (the focus of Pfeffer's article) or the adults.
When Pfeffer looks at MBA students who are entering the workforce, he is rather concerned with what he sees:
- a remarkable sense of entitlement
- a reluctance to face honest feedback and the consequences of one's own actions
- an unwillingness to engage in the competition that characterizes organizational life
He points to a study that shows a "dramatic increase" in narcissistic personality traits among college students, between 1982 and 2009. The markers are "an inability to take the perspective of others, a dependence on others for affirmation, and valuing one's self regardless of real achievements while seeking constant praise."
What Pfeffer is getting at, it seems to me, is the self-esteem question at the K-12 level. How much do we praise students for? Is it endless? Is there a point after which it becomes harmful to the well-being of the student? In other words, does a relentless pursuit of increasing self-esteem in K-12 students lead--in some way--to relentless narcissism at a later date?
The self-esteem question is one of those things that we have discussed for many years in independent schools. How much is just right, when is it too much, when is it not enough? What are the consequences of not enough?
Pfeffer proposes some changes to business schools in order to better prepare graduates for entry into the real world of work. Some suggestions are things that we do already in K-12 independent schools, such as teaching students that there are consequences for their actions when it comes to academic rules of conduct (think: cheating and the role of an honor code). One suggestion that compels, however, is that "students need to learn the principles of power", including teaching them how to build and maintain social networks: not merely the online social networks, but in-person networks that surround them daily.
Of course, the principles of power include things that we're doing well in our schools: giving students the ability to see the world through another's point of view (helps to garner influence), teaching them how to balance ambition, drive, and persistence (skills that will help them in task groups with hierarchy), and helping students to be resilient when it comes to setbacks, which we all experience.