The life and times of a senior scholar: an interview with HBS’s Joseph Bower

Journal of Management History

ISSN: 1751-1348

Article publication date: 28 June 2011



Moore, K. (2011), "The life and times of a senior scholar: an interview with HBS’s Joseph Bower", Journal of Management History, Vol. 17 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The life and times of a senior scholar: an interview with HBS’s Joseph Bower

Article Type: The life and times of a senior scholar: an interview with HBS’s Joseph Bower From: Journal of Management History, Volume 17, Issue 3

Joseph L. Bower, the Baker Foundation Professor of Business Administration, has been a leader in General Management at Harvard Business School for 45 years. The faculty chair of “The Corporate Leader,” until 2006 he served as the founding faculty chair of “The General Management Program,” both in Executive Education. An expert on corporate strategy, organization, and leadership, he has devoted much of his teaching and research to challenges confronting corporate leaders in today’s rapidly changing hyper-competitive conditions. Currently, he is helping to build the new joint MBA-MPP degree program offered by the Business School and the Kennedy School of Government.

Still an active researcher and writer, his most recent article is “The teaching of strategy: from general manager to analyst and back again?,” Journal of Management Inquiry, December 2008. Other recent articles include “Solve the succession crisis by growing inside-outside leaders,” Harvard Business Review, November 2007, “How managers’ everyday decisions create – or destroy – your company’s strategy,” (with Clark Gilbert) Harvard Business Review, February 2007. His most recent book was, The CEO Within: Why Inside Outsiders Are the Key to Succession Planning, HBS Press, 2007. His next book, with H.L. Leonard and L.S. Paine is The Future of Market Capitalism.

Professor Bower has also consulted widely on problems of strategy and organization with companies here and abroad. He is a director of Anika Therapeutics, Inc. Brown Shoe, Inc. Loews Corporation, New America High Income Fund, and Sonesta International Hotels Corporation. He is a life trustee of the New England Conservatory of Music and trustee of the DeCordova and Dana Museum and Park.

Professor Bower is a Graduate of Harvard University AB ’59 magna cum laude, MBA ’61 a Baker Scholar with high distinction, DBA ’63. Married to Elizabeth Potter, he lives in Cambridge, has two children and five grandchildren.

Recently, Journal of Management History Board member Karl Moore sat down with Joe Bower.

We plan to have this as a regular feature where Karl Moore interviews Senior Scholars in the Business School Community about their life and times.

This is Karl Moore for the Journal of Management History. Today I am delighted to speak to Joe Bower, who’s a Senior Professor at the Harvard Business School and has been involved in the business school world for over five decades.

Good afternoon, Joe.

JB. Good afternoon, Karl.

KM. So, Joe, take us back to when you got started in the business school. What year did you first start at Harvard?

JB. Well I started at Harvard College in 1955, and I started in Harvard Business School MBA in 1959 and then I got my doctorate in 63. The doctorate took me two years, but I started teaching in 63.

KM. So, then, really, since 1955 you’ve been at Harvard? And mostly at the Business school. Has it changed at all?

JB. It’s changed enormously. When I came, let’s talk about the Business school particularly, we thought we were very diverse, but we were basically white males from the USA and the Commonwealth countries and a really unusual international person would be French or Australian or something like that. So the world has, today at Harvard Business school, it’s the United Nations and there are a lot of women and they are doing a fantastic job, and things have changed in an extraordinary way.

One of the big things that’s changed, we were all white males and we thought we were different, and we were sure that we had different aspirations, different ways, but we were remarkably homogeneous and that meant that in class you could do kinds of things that have become very difficult.

What do I mean? I mean that you could approach things with a kind of candour or rough humour because in fact, everybody was coming off the same set of assumptions.

Today, class is so diverse, now that is great, but I don’t think we have learned yet how to use that. We have learned how to take account of it and how to behave alright so that we do not offend, but we haven’t really gotten to the point where we can take advantage of the fact that in the room is a Japanese woman who has managed to achieve, despite a culture that hasn’t made that easy, but whose approach to communication is quiet and a little deferential and not what is going to help make it easy for her to help the class learn from her. We have other kinds of people in the room, all kinds, who have had all kinds of experiences and we don’t use that well, yet. So that’s going to be a huge opportunity. We could, despite our scale, we can do more to take advantage of internships, getting out in the field for students, even though we are big.

Another thing that’s happened is that beginning, I would say, in the late 1960s and particularly in the 1970s we began to get the emergence of the knowledge industries and all of a sudden being very, very smart was also a good way to make money.

It wasn’t that the managers of companies were not smart, but they didn’t see themselves as intellectuals, but we began to see in business, particularly in the great consulting firms and the investment banks, really, the kind of people who previously have been professors were running large enterprises. That really changed the world, and then as we begin to implement the kinds of things that could be done with new information technology, we have firms, we have activity on a scale that was unimaginable. I had summer jobs when I was an MBA in Wall Street and $100 million day was regarded, a 100 million share day, was regarded as something fantastic. Well, we have billion shares! If you look at companies we thought a 100 million was, I mean it was unimaginable. 10 billion was a great large company and now we have these huge enterprises.

KM. Looking back, I mean Harvard was one of the few Business schools in late 1950s and 1960s, we see an enormous proliferation of Business schools. Has that been a good thing, do you think, for the world?

JB. Well, yes, in the sense that there are an awful lot of people who’ve been trained in essentially economics, accounting and so on, so that in enterprise you really have a lot of a pool of talent to grow on.

I think the problem in Business schools was late, actually in the 1950s, with the idea that the answer to the problems of management lay in management science and we saw this tremendous surge of quantification and the idea that everything could be studied the way you could study an operations research problem. Indeed, you can do the optimal spacing of telephone poles with models, you can run a refinery with models, but you can’t run a large organization of human beings that way.

I think, particularly as the idea began to take root that the purpose of enterprise was share holder value, defined quite narrowly, we got into a lot of problems which we have seen flowering, if you like, in 2008 and 2009; A really, collapse. You could argue that what we have looked at was a failure of our system and we would better fix it.

KM. Harvard takes a bit of the blame for that.

JB. Of course!

KM. How should Harvard and other Business schools renew themselves? What would you suggest for the future?

JB. Harvard, as you know, is completely focused on the training of general managers, we say leaders who make a difference, and we do that through the case method. Actually, from our perspective, the case method is an approach to experiential learning. It means that the students in the classroom, interacting with each other, rather than just taking notes on the professor, learn a lot about what it means to solve problems in the context of other people.

We have to figure out, I think as schools, how to take advantage of the new ideas that have been developed, new concepts, but put them in the context of human organization and particularly, I think, as US schools and Canadian schools, get our students out to other parts of the world so that, in fact, they can work on what are currently called “problems” – poverty, inequality, all kinds of issues – and in fact there are these staggering opportunities as the developing nations, essentially, give us a chance to bring billions of people into the market system. I think that we can’t have students think that their lives are successful if they are great traders. I mean that’s fine, society needs great traders, but we did not found Harvard Business school to help people learn how to be great traders.

KM. Joe, you could be retired at your age and you are well enough off to do that, why do you keep working, what keeps driving you?

JB. It’s so much fun! I mean, first of all I’ve noticed that people who retire tend to spend their time with other people who retired, which means they’re old and what’s fun in life are young people who are doing new things and exciting things, who want to grow and helping them is really astonishingly rewarding. I mean, I like what I do, so why would I want to stop?

KM. When you look at yours, have you studied one subject for your whole career, or has it evolved a great deal over that time?

JB. For some reason I was always, I was trained as an economist, and I thought economics was about what went on in a firm, running all the big decisions in a firm. But I started immediately with fieldwork and I just discovered that it had nothing to do with it. I spent more and more and more time and, as I succeeded, got more and more access. Studying CEO succession is exciting, and that’s very different from my first work on capital budgeting and making strategies.

KM. Harvard’s famous for its case method. You’ve done it for 50 years. Should Harvard change its approach, or should it absolutely be committed to the case method?

JB. Well, if you remember, earlier I said it’s, really, we got to it because it was the way we could do experiential learning at a large-scale. We have a class of almost a thousand, and it’s very hard to take them into a thousand internships. You could imagine a smaller school having a very different strategy and that would be fine.

KM. How do we respond to this criticism that you’ve been making; how do we fix it?

JB. The great thing about the case method is that faculty write cases. So, what really helped me in my development was getting out there and spending a lot of time. When I wrote my book on resource allocation I spent almost two years in one company. Today we call that, we have some fancy name for it, ethnographic study, or something like that, but I learned a lot! I began to learn how to understand managers, how to think about what their problems were, how to help them, how to respond, and that transferred into the classroom. So, it wasn’t just that there was a case, it was that this young faculty person had had the chance to grow and develop and understand the phenomena so that they could be more useful as a professor. Well, I think we have to do some version of that, we have to get faculty back into the field, more involved with practice and then using their wonderful minds and better concepts to help understand what’s going on, and resolve some of these problems we’re facing.

KM. You love teaching, but a lot of schools, for tenure track faculty, the focus is entirely on A journals and little on teaching well. So, many schools really don’t show enthusiasm for it, but you seem to love teaching.

JB. Right, well I think we, part of it is once you’ve experienced the fun of helping students. I think part of it is that lecturing is boring, but interacting with students is really fantastic.

KM. And you can be a good researcher and a good teacher at the same time.

JB. I think they help each other. What I was suggesting is as I began to really understand the phenomena that I was supposed to be teaching about by being out there and learning, I became much better in the classroom. I remember when I was young, one feedback I got, which was really startling: someone said “Joe, you know more things about companies that aren’t so, than almost anybody I know.” So, you know, that sets you back. That was in the period of my life when I really thought management science could solve a lot of problems and I grew up.

KM. Remember the old Frank Sinatra song “My Way”, a memorable line in it says, “regrets I’ve had a few,” so, any regrets along the way?

JB. You asked me about what regrets. Yes, I think I wish I had gotten involved internationally earlier. I think I did start in ’68, but that, I don’t have languages, I wish I had better language capability. I wish I had spent more time outside of the USA earlier. I’m spending a lot of time in China now, but I’m too old.

KM. This has been Karl Moore for the Journal of Management History. Today I have had the considerable privilege of speaking with a senior scholar, Joe Bower, from the Harvard Business School.

Karl MooreDesautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

About the author

Karl Moore is an Associate Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management and an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Faculty of Medicine, both at McGill University, he also an Associate Fellow at Green Templeton College, Oxford University, where he was a Fellow from 1995-2000. He is the author/co-author of 24 referred journal articles including in the Strategic Management Journal, Business History, Management Interview Review, Human Relations, and the Journal of Management History, over 30 executive journal articles and ten books/edited volumes. He works closely with Henry Mintzberg developing and teaching innovative executive education programs. Karl Moore can be contacted at:

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