by Sandra Smith

Tech leaders’ love letter to the liberal arts

Feb 14, 2017
IT Leadership

What science and technology leaders can learn from a liberal arts education.

graduation cap with diploma stacked on books
Credit: Thinkstock

I am business leader and strategy consultant with two degrees in industrial engineering and a Wharton MBA. I lead a graduate program for technology professionals aiming for business leadership. And this, though it may surprise you, is my love letter to the liberal arts.

You see, early in my career when I joined the Boston Consulting Group the majority of hires were, like me, MBAs from select schools. But I recall they reserved a specific number of spots for what we called “nontraditional hires”. Those were the ones with liberal arts degrees. They were often the ones who came up with the most innovative solutions – the ones who looked at problems from angles that the rest of us, intensely trained in business or technical domains, did not see.

Many business leaders I have spoken with including senior executives from Intel, Facebook and start-up companies commented on the value of liberal arts education. They’ve pointed to leadership and career success linked to the liberal arts elements of their education. They tell stories about how the liberal arts prepared them to be broad thinkers – looking at problems creatively through different lenses.

Their stories provoked my curiosity. Now I’m getting a close up view at Brown University and answers to my questions, immersed in the dialogue about the impact of liberal arts education.  

Liberal in liberal arts refers to liberty, freedom – essentially the freedom to have and express ideas and prepare for a life of impact. From my experience and that of so many top business leaders, the essence of the liberal arts – creativity, critical thinking and communication skills – are closely linked with success in the technical and business worlds. Industry changes so rapidly. What you learn in a technical degree is perfect at present but often becomes dated and needs to be refreshed continuously. But learning to think critically and creatively is what prepares you to ideate what the future will look like. With the skills of the liberal arts you capture and integrate information from diverse sources, learn to manage ambiguity, and hone your capacity to influence others.

The Economist recently noted that middle age workers with decades of work still ahead of them must grab every opportunity to update their education because technology is, of course, everything now and more in the future. But the question for many is, what kind of education? In my career, both immersed in and preparing people for that future, I see that the best graduate education is not purely technical or business focused, but also incorporates the skills traditionally found in liberal arts – because creating the future isn’t just about technical skills, it’s about wisdom, vision and leadership.

Today’s leaders, according to a new Gallup poll, are increasingly expected to better engage employees in their work. We know what’s needed to do this are the leadership skills of empathy, communication, creativity and critical thinking. Whether it’s understanding the lessons of history or psychology, it’s by getting inside the minds of others and digging into their ideas, experiences and perspective that frees us fromthe limitations of our own time, place, thoughts and experiences, and unleashes us to think more critically and creatively about present challenges.

Design thinking is often considered a critical element of the technical domain today. But design thinking speaks the language of liberal arts – inspiration, ideation, empathy and divergent thinking, which springs from collaboration among people with diverse experiences and backgrounds. Knowing this, it becomes obvious that combining the liberal arts with science and technology leads us to totally different approaches to solving problems, and that’s what our technical and business graduates and our leadership programs do well to explore.