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The music of authentic teachers

August 13, 2009

I have a theory about teachers: talented teachers become corrupt over time. They start with a genuine desire to help students discover new things, then fall in love with themselves. Students’ learning yields to the professor’s ego and his or her needs to be admired and complimented. Before long, the class is about the teacher, no longer about the students. It moves from education to show business.

I ought to know. I live surrounded by star business school teachers who wow students every day, gather large crowds at international events, and charge a minimum of $15,000 per appearance, sometimes going up to $50,000 or even $100,000. When they reach that level, most professors are no longer interested in the learning of their adoring crowds but focus instead on lifting their shows to the top of the (earnings) charts. As in show business, authenticity gets replaced by staged performance. Star professors become the Rolling Stones, still incredibly fun after all these years, but you know Mick and Keith don’t give a hoot about you anymore.

My cynicism about business school teachers notwithstanding, I recently signed up for a class at Babson College, my first one as a genuine student in 30-some years. The class was run by Babson President Len Schlesinger (in partnership with Charlie Kiefer). I expected to see Robert Plant, the aging singer of Led Zeppelin, and looked forward to his acoustic rendition of “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead, I discovered a vanguard artist creating a whole movement around him, and reinventing the music business to boot.

I had known Len a long time ago, but had lost track of him until someone recently told me we might have overlapping interests. The class I took (titled “Entrepreneurial Thoughts and Actions,” I think) is best described as a co-created experiment on co-creation. It costs close to nothing by the standards of executive education events involving professors of Schlesinger’s caliber ($275). It has no handouts worth talking about (hence my hesitation about even the name of the class). The other students were an egalitarian mish-mash of idealistic Babson students, experienced entrepreneurs, managers of nonprofit agencies, and business types interested in innovation. The students are meant not only to help debug the material but also become nodes in the co-development of the ideas.

The core of the class is provided by the two teachers, of course. In deference to Len’s and Charlie’s work, I will not divulge the content of the workshop, except to say that it is a gig on entrepreneurship offering powerful melodic lines with a free-form rhythm section. The rest is up to you.

The most daring types are invited to come on stage and riff with the boys (women were particularly good at it). Len has integrated new research that he quotes with the enthusiasm of Sting discovering Indian music (in his case, Saras Sarasvathy at the University of Virginia). The key they play in is so disruptive to what you hear from the traditional literature on entrepreneurship, with its analytical, funding-oriented bias, that you may feel like Glenn Miller at a Phish concert.

Their stuff is about the entrepreneurs themselves, rather than the power of their vision. Entrepreneurs, they claim, are like John and Paul in the early ’60s, figuring out that they like each other (at least at the beginning) and discovering what kind of music they want to play to earn a little money. For the first time, I saw someone describing the entrepreneurs whom I know, happily making up stuff with self-selected partners for the sheer fun of it.

The remarkable thing about Schlesinger is that you still get the rock star in full voice (and humor). He’s hyperkinetic and will get you to air-guitar along his Aerosmith-like riffs (although love is indeed sometimes hard on his knees). But he’ll interrupt his solo any time he sees somebody grappling with something he said. He’ll hum with you till you learn, adding one voice at a time to the already vast chorus of his co-creators, simply because he cares. He also said I could come back to the next workshop and he’d charge me only $25.

At that price, I think I’ll dust off my Fender Stratocaster from the attic and see if I can help him introduce a little more beat into his free jazz.

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