A Beloved Course Examines the Role of Business Leaders in Society, with Help from Visiting CEOs
Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s popular elective course Strategic Leadership across Sectors brings CEOs and students together to explore how business leaders balance their obligations to society and the bottom line.
By Karen Guzman
Real-world business challenges take center stage in Yale SOM classrooms every day—and nowhere is this more apparent than in Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s long-running elective course Strategic Leadership across Sectors.
On a recent April afternoon, a panel of global business leaders gathered with Sonnenfeld and his students to discuss the challenge of navigating climate change. The leaders included Deloitte U.S. CEO Joe Ucuzoglu; Shelly Lazarus, chairman emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide; Brad Karp, chairman of Paul, Weiss; and Richard Lesser, global chair and former CEO of Boston Consulting Group.
The speakers described the delicate “high-profile balancing act” they undertake every day in persuading cautious CEOs and balky boards, not to mention clients and constituents, to prioritize climate change and other urgent social issues. Sonnenfeld moderated the discussion, and students chimed in with questions.
The ensuing back-and-forth dialogue sparkled with earnest inquiry, CEO soul-searching, and the type of candor around difficult issues—what are deal breakers when it comes to engaging with businesses not aligned with Western values?—that’s hard to come by when a corporate board is listening.
Similar gatherings repeated each week throughout the rest of the semester, as a parade of C-suite leaders traveled to campus.
“None of the 65 guests we’ve had this semester had any other reason to be in New Haven,” says Sonnenfeld, the senior associate dean for leadership studies and Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management. “They aren’t doing business here. They don’t live here. They come because our students ask really smart questions, and guests know it’ll be a candid discussion around the issues they care most about.”
These discussions also resonate with students. Strategic Leadership across Sectors is one of the most popular courses at Yale SOM, filled to capacity every year, with many students turned away. “This is the dream course for a lot of students,” says Steven Tian, YC ’20, Sonnenfeld’s research director and former teaching assistant. “It’s such a rare, unique opportunity to engage in a way that you don’t always get in a classroom setting. When a student wants to come to Yale, this is the kind of course they dream of.”
Guest speakers call the chance to address Sonnenfeld’s class unique and challenging.
“Jeff is a brilliant professor and a dynamic leader,” says Robert Hormats, former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment. “He exudes integrity and principal and emphasizes their vital role in the future success of his students, our country, and the Western market system.”
Hormats, also a lecturer in management at Yale SOM, has co-taught the class with Sonnenfeld. “Jeff’s class combines relevant facts with the challenge to students and guest lecturers alike to think deeply about topics and to welcome a diversity of opinions and conclusions. This is a profoundly stimulating learning experience that generates new ideas and new perspectives to address new challenges,” he says.
Author and former USA Today editor-in-chief Joanne Lipman has spoken in Sonnenfeld’s course a number of times. “Jeff enjoys throwing his guests difficult questions about topical issues, which in turn allows students to experience the kind of candid conversations that typically occur only behind closed office doors,” she says.
“In a recent class with media leaders—with guests including former CNN head Jeff Zucker and CNBC chair Mark Hoffman—we delved into topics ranging from Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter to the media’s role in misinformation to the infamous Oscar slap. The students keep us on our toes. Coming from diverse backgrounds and a variety of industries, they offer a perspective that's incredibly valuable to the executives.”
Richard Spencer, former U.S. Secretary of the Navy, calls it an “honor” to serve as a guest speaker. “I was humbled by the students’ well-read knowledge of the subject matter and their intellectual curiosity as to how leadership functions in a large enterprise,” he says. “Jeff's high-energy, multimedia presentations with supporting information are laced with real-life, current events that make the learning experience even more impactful.”
The course has its roots in a course that Sonnenfeld taught at Harvard Business School in the 1980s. “I’ve gone through some different iterations of it since, but I have always included panels of accomplished CEO peers,” Sonnenfeld said. “It’s an unparalleled opportunity for students to meet face to face with the people who are living these issues every day.”
Sonnenfeld’s course has campus-wide appeal. Every year he reserves seats for a number of undergraduates, as well as for students from other Yale professional schools, including the Schools of Medicine, Public Health, Divinity, and Law. “We like to cross-pollinate to bring in different disciplines and viewpoints,” he said.
Jen Lawrence ’22 served as a teaching assistant in the course. Sonnenfeld’s “enthusiasm, dynamism in the classroom, and deep subject matter expertise create a special learning environment,” she says. “The course and the perspective of guests changed the way I think about business leadership, particularly in the context of global affairs.”
The course takes a cross-sector view of today’s corporate leaders, studying the impact of their decisions on business and society. The curriculum has three distinct components: “The first third is scholarship of where we are in the frontier of knowledge,” Sonnenfeld said. “The second third is best practice as we know it, and a final third is applying it all to something really disruptive in the day’s headlines.”
Keeping pace with the headlines requires frequent curricular pivots. In the past two years, Sonnenfeld has addressed, in real time, such issues as the business implications of a U.S. presidential impeachment; the COVID-19 pandemic; Elon Musk’s pending Twitter takeover; and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
All this pivoting means Sonnenfeld has to juggle guest speakers, and sometimes line up new ones, fast. It helps that as the creator of Yale SOM’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute and its CEO Summit, he’s on a first-name basis with dozens of them.
“What’s really obvious is the admiration these CEOs have for Jeff,” says Tian. “They appreciate what he’s doing, and you see it in their willingness to come and in their interactions with students.”
Sonnenfeld assembles speakers in “panels of peers” to capture a variety of viewpoints. “When you bring together five [former General Electric CEO] Jack Welches, and they challenge each other—which I’ve done to Jack Welch, by the way—you’re going to have a richer understanding of dealing with an issue,” he explains. “If we have four pharmaceutical companies talking about how they price vaccines for different markets, students realize there isn’t just one way.”
This year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine became an immediate focus of the course—and several students in the course joined Sonnenfeld in compiling a much-publicized and influential list showing which companies had curtailed their dealings in Russia. All spring, the list generated massive amounts of media interest—Sonnenfeld has given hundreds of interviews on the topic—and updating it became an almost full-time job for the students.
Georgia Hirsty ’22 was on the student research team. “I was deeply moved by Professor Sonnenfeld’s conviction, and I knew, from my own experience, the power that blockades can have, especially when coupled with sanctions,” Hirsty said. “It’s been an incredible and impactful project, and I hope our work contributes to bringing about an end to Russia’s cruel and criminal war.”
Teaching assistant Sammy Marrus ’22 calls the entire course experience invaluable. “It’s been amazing to see how quickly Jeff was able to pivot the course to allow current events and their effects on leadership and corporate governance to take center stage,” he says. “We’ve truly gotten a masterclass in leadership.”
Fellow teaching assistant Drew D’Alelelio ’22, a joint-degree student at Yale SOM and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, says he was bowled over by the energy, insight, and passion Sonnenfeld brings into class every week.
“It’s been an incredible chapter in my SOM experience,” he says. “I’ve learned important lessons on how to lead, how to bring people together, and how to stand up for my values. I’m sure I’ll carry these lessons with me for years to come.”
Hirsty, too, says she expects the course to resonate in her career, making her both a better leader and a better citizen. “This was, perhaps, the most important course I took during my MBA career,” she says.
“It profoundly impacted my understanding of how heroic leadership can fundamentally shape not only a company but society. Professor Sonnenfeld shows that we can hold leaders accountable and ask difficult questions, while giving them the grace, respect, and the accolades they deserve. He challenges his students and guests alike to grapple with today’s biggest challenges.”
Top: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld with the student research team for the “Russia list.”