As the director of Harvard Business School’s Forum for Growth and Innovation and senior lecturer of business administration, Derek van Bever, MBA ’88, MDiv ’11, makes management education his ministry. In so doing, he draws on his HDS experience and challenges future business leaders to evaluate their actions—and the actions of the organizations they lead—through a rigorous ethical framework.
In the Gospel of Mark, for instance, the Pharisees complain to Jesus when they see his disciples gathering grain on the Sabbath, a day of rest and worship according to Jewish law. Jesus responds by reminding them of the example of King David, who fed his hungry companions on the Sabbath with “the bread of Presence,” traditionally sanctioned only for use by priests. “The Sabbath was made for humankind,” he concludes, “and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
“It’s a wonderfully rich, revolutionary reminder that the Sabbath is supposed to be a blessing, not a burden,” says van Bever, who tells the story in his role as leader of Harvard Business School’s required Leadership and Corporate Accountability course. “And so, I think of this lesson when we’re discussing the impact of the market economy on our lives: ‘Is the economy serving us, or are we serving the economy? Who’s serving whom here?’ God never told us to serve at the altar of efficiency. Capitalism is not a religion, it’s simply an economic order. So we want to be constructive and consider how we shape that order to better serve humanity.”
A successful entrepreneur and executive, van Bever co-founded and helped lead two consulting firms: The Advisory Board Company (ABC), a global research, consulting, and technology firm serving hospital and university executives, and The Corporate Executive Board (CEB), a global thought leadership and advisory network. As chief technology officer for CEB, van Bever helped steer the company through and beyond its initial public offering in 1999.
CEB grew fast. Over time, van Bever found himself increasingly troubled by his firm’s shift in focus from serving its members to pleasing the markets. He came to HDS “looking for sanctuary” and for some perspective on what had happened to the company he helped to build.
“Little by little by little, quarter by quarter, we started to shift our focus from what would make our members happiest to what would make the market happiest,” he says. “We didn’t do anything illegal or unethical or immoral, but it was deeply disappointing nonetheless. In coming to HDS, I wanted to step back from the ‘high hurry of business’ to think about how we bake an enduring value set into the companies that we’re running, such that, in St. Augustine’s terms, we accomplish that swerving of the will that causes us to be our best selves.”
His original ambition was to use religious and theological knowledge to “go out and help other business people avoid making the mistakes I had made, to retain the focus of their company through toils and snares, and emerge triumphant.” A wry smile spreads across van Bever’s face today when he thinks of what he now sees as the naïveté of that vision, revealed to him in a conversation with Professor Emily Click that provided one of the most powerful—and humbling— moments of his time at HDS.
“Professor Click said, ‘Derek, I was a minister for 10 years,’” van Bever remembers. “‘One thing I learned for certain is that people heading into a swamp seldom ask for a map. But when someone finds themselves in quicksand, they will reach out to any arm that’s offered to help them.’ That insight had such truth and such humanity to it. We have to make our own mistakes and then we have to forgive ourselves.”
Chastened but not deterred, van Bever pursued his distinctive ministry. He pitched his vision from school to school, but got a cool reception because he had no PhD. Then, in 2012, HBS professor Clayton Christensen—himself a deeply religious person—asked van Bever to join the teaching team for Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise (BSSE), the most popular elective course in the second-year MBA curriculum.
“At its core, BSSE is about change,” he says. “If you build a successful company, something in the environment will change and your organization will have to adapt. All of the forces that are involved in advancing your core business are going to resist the change. So leaders have to balance between encouraging the core business and planting the seeds for the next big thing. And the irony is that the better, the more successful the company, the harder it is to change. We try to prepare our students for the essential loneliness of that leadership job.”
After several years of success teaching thousands of BSSE students, van Bever also took on Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA), the Business School’s required first- year ethics course. Created in the aftermath of the Enron debacle, LCA tries to orient students to the fundamental ethical questions of leadership: What is my responsibility to investors, customers, employees, and society? How do I prioritize those responsibilities? Where do economics, the law, and ethics overlap? How can I make the wisest possible decisions?
“It’s the issue of how leaders choose the harder right over the easier wrong, as the West Point model has it,” van Bever explains. “The most important lesson that we teach the students in the ethics component of our course is that you are not the person that you hope you can be or wish you could be—you are the sum of the decisions you’ve made. So you need to look at yourself in these situations and gain perspective on yourself as a decision maker and as a leader. Ultimately, that is the highest standard that you have to hold yourself to.”
Religion is one of the last taboos in the HBS classroom, van Bever says. In part to address this concern, last year he wrote the first “religion in the workplace” case for LCA. The subjects were litigation arising from perceived discrimination at Masterpiece Cakeshop and Abercrombie & Fitch.
“Our students are concerned that their increasingly global careers will take them into positions of leadership in contexts where they really do not understand the beliefs and religious practices of the people they are leading. They’re also interested in how, and how much, a leader can make the workplace reflect his or her religious beliefs.”
As director of the Forum for Growth and Innovation, van Bever collaborates with Clay Christensen not only on course curriculum but also on research. He says that Christensen’s influential theory of disruptive innovation is overused and mostly misunderstood. At its core, disruption is a theory of competition that explains, to use a biblical analogy, how David can sometimes beat Goliath. Xerox, for instance, became a leader by selling large industrial copiers to heads of IT through a dedicated sales force. When Canon came along with a desktop copier sold to administrative assistants through retail channels, however, Xerox, the giant of the industry, chose not to respond.
“A disruptor will either go after a segment of the market in which the incumbent is uninterested or it will go after a segment of the market that the incumbent has concluded that it can’t profitably serve,” van Bever explains. “Through some innovation, it builds a fundamentally lower-cost model that it uses to attack the incumbent from below.”
Applying the theory to mainline religious organizations, van Bever, who is also on the ordination path in the United Church of Christ, says it’s possible that Protestant denominations experiencing dramatic declines in membership are being disrupted by organizations less bound to a resource-intensive physical structure like a church building. He says that denominational leaders need to ask themselves some hard questions about their mission and how they operate.
“As they think about the changes in the world, do all of their responses center on drawing people into this physical plant?” he asks. “Is that the definition of success? If it is, it can be disrupted by organizations that don’t have a concern for this expensive resource at the center.”
As evidence, van Bever cites the plethora of alternatives and emergent organizations identified by HDS Ministry Innovation Fellows Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston: The Dinner Party, The Laundry Project, Crossfit, Soul Cycle, and many others. All look to provide members with a sense of connection, community, accountability, meaning, and purpose in a way that’s attractive, particularly to young people. To compete, traditional religious organizations need to focus on their competitive advantage: the wisdom represented in their core beliefs, typically expressed in scripture.
“Denominations have some core beliefs to which their adherents can attach, something for which they yearn,” van Bever says. “I think that’s a real point of distinction. So, rather than placing the building at the center, they might ask how better to place scripture and Spirit at the center. What appeal would that hold? Why would people ‘hire’ that set of beliefs? These are the questions to ask if you’re trying to figure out how vulnerable you are to attack by organizations that are increasingly attracting the allegiance of the generations coming up.”
Whether in religion or business, van Bever says that there are two kinds of people: those who imagine that the world acts upon them and those who imagine that they act upon the world. His mission—his ministry—is to engage the latter so that they can become ethical leaders who ultimately contribute to humanity’s flourishing.
“I want the students I teach to self-identify as leaders who are going to make a positive difference in the lives of the people around them,” he says. “I want them to leave Harvard Business School looking over their own shoulder and asking, ‘Does this behavior live up to my highest standards for myself?’ That is a core lesson of the ethics component of our curriculum, and I hope it’s one that our students carry forward with them throughout their working lives.”