Nestled among the brick and history of one of the University’s original buildings, the students partake of pizza and Belgium microbrews. But don’t let the cozy setting fool you. They also chew on tough concepts of leadership and personal motivation, and with class participation counting for more than half the grade, they know better than to get too comfortable.
Then comes this question: What should the purpose of business be?
One student says it’s to make as much money as possible. Another says it’s to serve the customer. A third says it depends on how you define value. That’s when Darden School of Business Dean Scott Beardsley jumps in: “Which of the value levers do you think are the relevant ones?”
Welcome to “Maximizing Leadership Potential in Sports and Business,” a seminar for second-year M.B.A. students and select third- and fourth-year undergraduates that Beardsley and Virginia men’s tennis coach Brian Boland taught in the fall semester.
How did a business guru and a tennis coach wind up teaching together? Each was interested in the other’s field. An avid tennis player, Beardsley saw the game’s concepts transferable to business. Boland saw aspects of global strategy—Beardsley’s specialty during 26 years with McKinsey & Company in Belgium—applicable to the tennis court.
“Business and sports are very bottom-line driven,” Beardsley tells the 16 students who have convened at his Pavilion I residence.
Beardsley and Boland engage the students in Socratic dialog, where the teachers ask the questions, the students provide the answers, and the answers beget more questions. At times, Beardsley seems to be thinking out loud, ranging across a seemingly random array of topics. When he gets to Merck & Co.’s free distribution of a river blindness drug in the 1980s, even Boland loses the thread. “What was the question, again?” he says, smiling, which bursts the room into laughter. “Can you rephrase it?”
In the course’s final session, Beardsley asks students to pick one thing that has strongly motivated them and identify the motivation as either intrinsic, something for which they’re internally wired, or extrinsic, driven by some form of outside incentive. To start the discussion, he confesses that when he was a student, he was “about as extrinsically motivated as you could possibly be,” earning both a Tufts University undergraduate engineering degree and an M.B.A. from MIT with highest honors.
Boland shares his own epiphany with the class. He faults himself for, early in his tenure, focusing players too much on winning instead of on the intrinsic rewards of mastering the craft and playing for a greater purpose. “I think we would have six or seven national championships if I had learned this 10 years ago,” says the three-time NCAA champion coach, “and I think I would have been a lot happier.”
Ben Matthews (Engr ’17) says such discussions are typical of the semester’s two-hour classes—and not anything like what he experiences in the Engineering School. “You’re not just being talked at, but instead you’re sitting in a circle … where they basically spend the entire class asking you questions,” he says.
At the end of the course, Beardsley asks the students how they want to be remembered in life, reduced to what might fit on a tombstone. “A great man is a sentence,” he explains.
Boland proposes an epitaph for himself: “He kept learning and growing to make the world a better place to live.”
If the students needed to know the central theme of an upper-level seminar in leadership, he had just given it in one sentence.