IESE students on global risks

Last week we kicked off this year’s edition of Strategy and Geo-politics. a course in the second year of IESE’s full time MBA program here in Barcelona. The course is loosely based on my book with the same title and the overall objective is for our students to see the importance of linking a firm’s business strategy to the geo-political realities in the countries and regions in which it operates.

Crimea 2015

While this idea may seem relatively straight forward, my conviction is that too often Sr. Executives do not pay enough attention to the history and geo-politics of the locations they do business in and are often taken by surprise by events such as Brexit, the Arab Spring, or the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

This year the class has 75 students from 31 different countries which enable us to have amazing discussions about the geo-political reality in different parts of the world. Like most business leaders, the great majority of them studied engineering, business and economics as under graduates although a few studied arts, science, medicine and history and a couple have experience in the military.

In the first session, I asked the students which part of the world they felt was most unstable and worrying from a geo-political point of view and I gave them six options including the Middle East, Europe including Russia, India and Pakistan, the South China Sea, Latin America and Africa.

Rex Tillerson

Many students felt that the combination of the Syrian civil war, the looming conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the ongoing issues between Israeli and her neighbors made the Middle East the most unstable part of the planet. One of the key aspects of the course is the central role that energy plays in geo-politics and our first case study had to do with Rex Tillerson’s tenure at ExxonMobile prior to his becoming Secretary of State for the United States.

Other students focused on Europe and the issues connected to Brexit and the conflict between the West and Russia over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. In another discussion, the students discussed their views of what is most likely to happen with Brexit. The class’ only English student thought that Brexit would either not happen at all or be so watered down as to be practically irrelevant.

Although I have students from both Pakistan and India none of them put the conflict between their countries first on the list and neither did the students from China, Taiwan and the Philippines feel that the South China Sea was the most dangerous.

Some students did feel that the ongoing crisis in Venezuela was of major concern and still others voted highlighted some of the issues in Africa.

Trump and Kim Jong-un

What was particularly interesting to me was that several students felt that the real danger to world order was in fact the United States and President Trump who has threatened North Korea with Fire and Fury despite the more level headed view argued for by Secretary Tillerson.

Another interesting discussion was about what criteria should be used for determining what is the most worrying part of the world. Is it about potential war and human tragedy for example, the likelihood of such events or should we focus more on events which pose systemic risks to the global system as a whole.

I ask the same question when I discuss geo-politics in different events for IESE Alumni around the world and get similar answers. In the interest of expanding the discussion even further, I invite any readers to post their own opinion as to which part of the world poses the greatest risks.