Where in the world do we draw our leadership lessons from?

Vibhuti Gour, Case Writer at the Case Centre on Public Leadership, shares how the case method can help us learn from thought leadership around the world.

Estimated reading time: 5 Minutes
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The case method is an interactive style of teaching where students put themselves in the shoes of a protagonist who must make a difficult decision, allowing them to apply academic theories to real-world contexts and develop their own leadership skills. While the case method has a long history in law and business schools, the Blavatnik School of Government’s Case Centre on Public Leadership has been adapting the case method for public policy education, seeking out stories from around the world to enhance the curriculum.    

Recently, schools across disciplines have moved towards promoting diversity in their cases, particularly in the profiles of the protagonists. Many educational institutions are now aware of the importance of this: Harvard Business School has initiated efforts to write and teach cases with more diverse protagonists, and the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business has similar ongoing initiatives.

Despite these efforts, there is much work to be done, particularly when it comes to addressing the Global North-South divide in the cases we write and teach. Though debated terms, here the Global North refers to the countries that were once colonial centres of power while the South refers to now decolonised nations. That such a divide exists is clear when looking at popular case collections. Of the ten bestselling cases of 2022 at The Case Centre, a popular case distribution platform, eight were based in the US or Europe. And in a report on the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion in business school case studies, the Haas School of Business looked at 215 cases with ‘diverse protagonists’ (that is, those not from the 'most powerful identity groups of a particular sector’) and found that only 14 (6.5 per cent) took place in countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. At the School’s Case Centre, we prioritise geographic breadth in our case library, though we still have further to go. Of the 28 cases in our collection to date, 50 per cent have protagonists from countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and 50 per cent from the US or Europe. 

There are various arguments as to why diversity should matter in institutions. McKinsey & Company have reported that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially. Others have argued that embracing a culturally sensitive approach from the start can help avoid the costs of ‘damage control’ incurred to restore an institution’s reputation if it is publicly seen as insensitive.

While such reports help bring diversity to the forefront, the call for greater geographic breadth in the public policy curriculum arguably goes deeper than profits and public image. Increasing the representation of different countries in our cases helps to challenge the status quo in which Western, often white protagonists are traditional policy leaders. It also helps dismantle the notion that the Global North is the only centre of thought leadership in policymaking. Conversations about representation are particularly important in institutions like Oxford where knowledge production has been criticised for going hand in hand with histories of colonialism and racism.

Showing multiplicity in how and where policymakers operate expands our understanding of leadership in several ways. 

It helps us realise our vision of being a global institution. At the Blavatnik School, our vision is to inspire and support better government and public policy around the world. In seeing ourselves as a global institution, we hold a responsibility to be truly representative of our international community, and their policy concerns, in our curriculum. Our recently published cases based in Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Nigeria, and Paraguay are a step in this direction. In the process of developing these cases, we work closely with in-country leaders to hear about their experiences and identify lessons relevant to students of public policy globally. This helps us to highlight real-life leadership challenges happening on the ground, rather than rely on international press coverage which may only depict the most sensational or stereotypical regional challenges.

It provides more relatable stories for our students. As is typical for our cohorts, our MPP class of 2022 has students from 52 different countries, many of whom are from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Ayodele Awi, an MPP student from Nigeria, explained how discussing cases from the Global South impacts the classroom experience:

"One unique thing about my experience in the MPP programme is the attention the case studies bring to policy issues from around the world to shape a truly global perspective. I think it is really important to highlight public policy leadership that is exemplary anywhere in the world, particularly in the Global South, to reassure policy leaders that lessons from Asia, Latin America, and Africa are equally useful in creating a world that is better led and better governed."

Another MPP student, Daniel Cooper Bermúdez from Venezuela, gave the example of how a specific case on the migrant crisis in Boa Vista, Brazil, resonated with him:

"As a Venezuelan human rights defender, it was a great learning experience to discuss the political and administrative issues a Brazilian mayor faced to integrate the Venezuelan migrant population through the education system in an increasingly polarised Brazil. The case studies provide us opportunities to learn concrete lessons from leaders and issues throughout the Global South."

It allows us to learn from countries and contexts that may otherwise be underrepresented in public policy teaching in the Global North. Scholars of knowledge production have called out how all too often, knowledge located in the Global North is considered ‘international’ and positioned globally, while knowledge located elsewhere is viewed as ‘local,’ i.e., only being applicable within a limited context. This framing perpetuates a system of knowledge production that privileges some voices under the guise of the ‘best ideas floating to the top’ while marginalising others. At the Case Centre, we have the opportunity to challenge these entrenched biases and instead offer avenues for students to learn about public sector leadership and management that challenge existing stereotypes.

At the Case Centre, drawing policy, leadership, and management lessons from leaders in the Global South is one small step towards addressing these power asymmetries. We hope that our cases are useful to other institutions, in the Global North and South alike, and we are excited to see other government schools around the world develop their own case collections to help promote wider diversity in public policy cases.

The Case Centre on Public Leadership develops case studies that draw on real-world policy challenges to bring academic theories to life. Using real-life scenarios to illustrate complex policy ideas and difficult managerial challenges, cases put students in the shoes of public sector leaders, helping to sharpen the analytical, decision-making and implementation skills needed in governments across the world.