By Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter
FORTUNE — About an hour into a leadership class at Columbia Business School, all 50-odd students were sitting rail-straight with their eyes closed. A blonde research associate with the slightest hint of a German accent cooed instructions at the front of the class. “Notice the sensation of your shoes,” he said.
Personal Leadership & Success, which is taught by leadership expert Hitendra Wadhwa, is considered one of the “softer” offerings at Columbia, especially when compared to “hard” courses such as finance. The idea behind it is that good leadership begins with self-knowledge, hence the meditation exercise.
It may seem far out, but there are similar classes at business schools across the country. Stanford has offered a class called “Touchy-Feely” since 1966. And a class at Harvard Business School takes this idea of self-knowledge through group learning a step further.
Recreating the community group
The class, developed by former Medtronic (MDT) CEO and Harvard management professor Bill George, runs on the premise that groups of business-minded leaders can offer better leadership guidance than other networks, including family and friends. For this class, Harvard MBAs from different backgrounds are put into small groups where they complete coursework together and share deeply personal experiences.
Those shared experiences can fill an unmet need for community. Americans have become less social, George argues in his recently published book True North Groups. He cites the work of fellow Harvard professor Robert Putnam, whose research has shown that Americans’ participation in groups outside of work, such as rotary clubs or religious groups, has plummeted. According to Putnam’s research, the number of people attending meetings of any kind of club in the U.S. dropped by 58% from 1975 to 2000.
That’s where some business schools are starting to step in, and students are responding. Personal Leadership & Success is one of the top 10 most popular electives for second-year MBA students at Columbia out of about 200 elective courses. Since 2008, over 600 students have applied every year for the 240 spots in Bill George’s class at Harvard (George now teaches a version for executives). This year, the Personal Leadership & Success program for MBAs is expanding to take on 60 more students per year.
Some students say they are attracted to these kinds of courses because they feel like they are learning to lead in a vacuum. According to Rye Barcott, a Duke Energy (DUK) employee and Harvard Business School alum who took George’s class, the problem with many leaders today has little to do with their ability to crunch numbers, but rather a lack of values. “When you think about the biggest failures of corporate executives, they’re not necessarily technical failures, but ethical ones, ” Barcott says.
Programs like George’s class can help sharpen those ethics in future executives, says HBS alum and film executive Peter Bisanz: “I think that if our business leaders had insight into their own strengths and weaknesses, we would not have had the excessive greed that would have led to the financial crisis.”
Granted, both of these men were star students in the class and they believe in the methodology. But they both opened up to their peers in ways that may seem, at first glance, out of place in a business school setting.
The crux of George’s class is the students’ identification of a “crucible” moment, described in True North Groups as sharing with their groups “the singular experience that has tested you to the limits and impacted your life.” Some choose to open up in front of everyone, and these crucible moments can be intense — one person stood up and came out as a homosexual in front of the whole class, Bisanz says. Bisanz himself shared his experience with alcoholism.
It can be tough to have the kind of intimate interactions with personal friends that are necessary to grow as a leader, George argues in his book. Barcott agrees: “How do you bring up what the crucible moment is in your life without sounding like a tool?”
The program is no stand-in for therapy though, George insists, and some topics should stay out of these discussions. For example, in his book, he refers to a married couple in a True North group that wanted to talk about issues they had been having as swingers. It was disruptive.
But students likely to be at Harvard Business school could use the self-reflection a True North group requires, perhaps more than anybody, says Bisanz. “A lot of them haven’t had to be subjected to deep personal examination of their lives,” he says, because their paths have led to a top business school, so they’ve been pretty successful by most standards. But he thinks that makes business-oriented soul searching even more necessary. “When those people are tried and tested, they’re going to have to decide who they are and what they believe in.”
A generation in search of purpose?
This idea that your beliefs should guide your career resonates among younger students and employees. Take Ben Austin, one of the students in Wadhwa’s class at Columbia. He used to work for film crews in Hollywood, fetching lattes, he jokes, but actually scoping out promising films at festivals. He hopes Wadhwa’s class will help him hone his sense of purpose and match that to his career goals. He isn’t so much looking for a job as a skill set, he says.
Millennials tend to, on the whole, crave jobs with a greater purpose. In a survey by consulting firm Mercer, young jobseekers ranked a company’s good reputation as one of the most important draws for a job, although salary still held the No. 1 spot. More than other workers, “Millennials are looking for a value congruence — it’s very important for them that the company they work for reflects their values,” says Jason Jeffay, a senior partner at Mercer consulting firm.
Clearly, that’s not true for all young people. Plenty of MBAs are strictly salary-driven, and both George’s and Wadhwa’s classes are electives, so they select for a population that’s searching for this kind of guidance. It’s unclear whether coursework like this could ever be mandatory, George says.
When work and personal life become one
At its core, these courses try to teach “social intelligence,” otherwise known as compassion mixed with common sense. Being a decent, fulfilled person will help you become a better leader and manager, the thinking goes.
In truth, the business and personal worlds are collapsing in on each other. Many of us carry work with us wherever we go and spend more time with colleagues as the workday grows longer and longer. So it makes sense that business schools are turning into places where students want to learn how to be good at life in general.
Ben Austin said as much. He suggested that this article open with a description of the students meditating, then continue to describe how no, this wasn’t a scene at a temple of worship but rather [dramatic pause] “Columbia Business School: a temple of commerce.”
Austin has a point. The lines between where we go for moral guidance and where we go to learn how to balance a budget are growing blurrier these days.