Learning Transformational Leadership in Rwanda with Executive MBA Professor

Wharton Executive MBA Professor Katherine Klein, vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, designed the global modular course, “Conflict, Leadership and Change: Lessons from Rwanda,” as a case study for students to learn about both failed and transformational leadership. She recently returned from Rwanda where she and Eric Kacou, a Wharton MBA alumnus and entrepreneur who grew up in Africa, taught 29 Wharton students, including 13 from the EMBA programs in San Francisco and Philadelphia.

How did you come up with the idea for a global modular course in Rwanda?

When I first travelled to Rwanda as a tourist nearly three years ago, I was very lucky to connect with several Rwandans who were open in sharing their experiences with me. We had long, intense conversations and they gave me a deeper and more personal understanding of the horror and magnitude of the genocide there. And, at the same time, these conversations gave me an appreciation for the remarkable progress the country has made in the last 19 years and the sense of hope Rwandans now have.

These conversations sparked my fascination with and engagement in Rwanda and left me pondering a number of compelling questions: How can a country as peaceful and orderly as Rwanda is today have experienced a genocide in which nearly a million people were killed in a three-month period? How does a country that was essentially a failed state become one of the fastest growing economies in the world? How can we understand Rwanda’s past and explain its progress? Ultimately, I concluded that Rwanda had a great deal to teach our students about conflict, leadership, and change and this became the focus of the course.

What do you want students to take away from the course?

Fundamentally, I hope that students take away four lessons from the course. The first is that it’s important to check our assumptions. We make a lot of assumptions without even knowing we are doing so. Rwanda challenges our assumptions. One arrives in Kigali and sees the verdant beauty of the country, the development, and the cleanliness. There is no litter anywhere and, of course, this is not what most of us expect to see in a third-world country.  Rwanda shows us how inaccurate our preconceptions may be.

Second, I want students to gain an in-depth appreciation of Rwanda’s history and progress. Rwanda is a small country. One can learn quite a lot about the country’s history and its current practices, policies, and leadership even during a short trip. So I see learning about Rwanda as an end in itself. Each country in Africa is different, so it’s not that one can generalize from Rwanda to other countries in Africa. Nevertheless, Rwanda provides a valuable introduction to Africa.

Third, I want students to grasp the leadership lessons that Rwanda teaches. The genocide can be traced back to failed, deeply malevolent and immoral leadership. The current recovery reflects the influence of strong and effective leadership.  Following the genocide, Rwanda’s leaders rewrote the constitution, in many ways designing a country like the founders of a startup craft their company’s strategy, culture, and operations. Rwanda offers powerful lessons about communication, vision, empowerment, goals, metrics, accountability and more. We teach these concepts in the classroom, of course. But, they are very, very vivid in Rwanda.

Finally, I hope the class inspires students to think about their own values and potential impact on the world. When you see what leadership has done in Rwanda for bad and for good, you have to consider what you are doing with your leadership skills and the type of impact you will make.

How is the course structured?

Eric and I see Rwanda as the real teacher, so our goal is to expose students to as much of the country as we can.  We spend long, full days visiting villages, businesses, and government agencies and meeting with leaders in each of these settings. When the students arrive in Rwanda, they’ve already read a lot about the country’s history and current leadership and practices. They’ve also read a series of articles about the psychology of evil, transformation leadership, conflict, conflict resolution, and organizational change. So they’re ready to focus on the lessons they can learn in meeting with a broad array of Rwandans – genocide survivors, mayors, students, farmers, ministers, and (this time) even Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame.

In addition to this course, what else are you currently teaching EMBA students?

I’m teaching a pilot course now called Social Impact KAP, which stands for Knowledge for Action Project. EMBA students work with both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations as consultants helping their clients create, enhance, sustain, or evaluate their social impact. Examples of organizations we’re working with include Nike, ConAgra, Coursera, iMerit, MedShare, and Freedom Writers.

What do you enjoy most about teaching in the EMBA program?

The students are a joy to teach. They are mature, thoughtful, professional and hungry to learn. They have a strong work ethic and are eager to apply what they are learning to their current jobs. They prepare well and they present well. I also enjoy teaching on both coasts because each program draws students from a different mix of industries. As for the commute to San Francisco, it’s never a hardship. I grew up in the Bay Area and the San Francisco campus is beautiful.

What are you working on as vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative?

Many Wharton students and faculty have a deep desire to make a positive difference in the world. Our role within the Wharton Social Impact Initiative (WSII) is to help them do so. We’re helping to make Wharton a launch pad for a lifetime of social impact.

In many ways, Wharton already is. We have numerous courses that focus on or touch on social impact – courses on impact investing, micro-finance, cause marketing, corporate diplomacy, the non-profit sector, and more. And many faculty are deeply engaged in research on these and related topics, such as financial literacy and financial inclusion. We also provide opportunities and support for student engagement in Philadelphia and for social impact internships. We are able to provide loan forgiveness for students going into social impact careers – especially in the non-profit sector.

Over the coming year, we expect to launch a number of new programs and opportunities – including a new website, a speaker series, a WSII conference on impact investing, and a new initiative focused on Sub-Saharan Africa. We’re planning these initiatives now and excited about the level of support we see for social impact at Wharton.

The diversity of things we’re doing reflects the diversity of paths that students take. Students can make a difference in many ways. They may start a non-profit or a for-profit social enterprise. They may take an “intrepreneurial” role within an existing company to find synergies between profit and purpose. They may go into impact investing. They may give their time and money to causes they believe in. We applaud all of these paths as well as paths not quite envisioned yet – the innovative paths to social impact that we think Wharton students will develop in the future.

To read a related blog about the Rwanda course, click here.

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