2018 Top 50 Undergraduate Professors: Cort Worthington, University of California Berkeley (Haas)

Cort Worthington

Distinguished Teaching Fellow

University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business

For Cort Worthington, a leadership professor at Haas School of Business, the claim to fame is improvisational leadership, a style of leadership marked by dual competencies in hard skills such as assertiveness and decisiveness along with soft skills such as building rapport and leading through trust. Beneath this specialization, what truly makes Lecturer Worthington so unique is his background as an improvisational theater instructor, documentary filmmaker, and parachuting U.S. Forest Service Smokejumper who learned the value of instant collaboration, open communication, and inventiveness on the fire line. In his nine years at Haas, he has created courses where students feel comfortable taking personal risks to develop into agile, innovative leaders. Repeatedly, students describe his “Improvisational Leadership” and “Leadership and Personal Development” classes as life-changing

This year, students chose Worthington to receive the Earl F. Cheit Award for Excellence in Teaching—the school’s highest teaching honor. He is also a multi-year member of Club 6, the elite group of professors receiving a mean teaching score of at least six on a seven-point scale.

Age: 57

Education: BA History and Education, Central Washington University; MA Communication, Stanford University; MBA (finance) Columbia Business School; MBA (leadership) UC Berkeley Haas School of Business

At current institution since: 2008

List of courses you currently teach: Leadership and Personal Development, Improvisational Leadership, Leadership Communication, The Art of Coaching Conversations, Negotiation

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Creating courses that did not exist and discovering how hungry students are for them.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” I finished my first day of class and told my wife I’d found my calling.

“One word that describes my first time teaching…” Thrilling.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? The use of improvisational principles and mindsets as tools for leadership development.  I continue to marvel how universally these principles apply across age and cultural differences.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? When 75 students showed up dressed exactly like me, and I didn’t notice until half-way through the class.  I felt such joy, embarrassed and flattered at the same time.

Since you first started teaching, how has business education changed? Ten years ago, soft-skill leadership classes like mine were rare.  At least at Berkeley Haas, the status of such classes has risen, and there are now many more creative courses to develop leadership skills.

“If I weren’t a business school professor, I would be…” a high school principal.

“Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a professor”: how meaningful it is, and so get there much earlier in life

Name of the professor you most admire and why: Dr. Zoltan Kramar, my undergraduate history professor.

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? How open and hungry they are to grow.

What’s the biggest challenge? I love teaching and the hours I give to students outside of class, yet I also have two young children.  Balancing where I place my time and attention is difficult.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? Become more true to themselves and their values.  

What is the least favorite thing one has done? Not taken themselves seriously enough.

Since you’ve been teaching, how have students changed over the years? I definitely find the students increasingly idealistic and more focused on finding meaningful work than simply chasing salary or prestigious titles.  

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Bring sincere inquiry and then work like crazy.  

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …”  reluctant but fair

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be? The blues classic “Dreams” by the Allman Brothers Band.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student Sincere

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student Unavailable

“If my students can stay open their entire lives, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

Fun fact about yourself: I was a parachuting forest firefighter for several years.

What are your hobbies? Classic literature, following the NBA

How did you spend your summer? teaching in Saudi Arabia, then back home with my children.

Favorite place to vacation: The San Juan Islands in Washington State

Favorite book: The Brothers Karamazov

Favorite movie and/or television show: Lawrence of Arabia, Rick and Morty

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: The Allman Brothers Band

Bucket list item #1: Spend a year as a monk on Mt. Athos in Greece

What’s the biggest challenge facing business education at the moment? The constant tension between whether we are training societal leaders or job fillers.

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” grounding in the wisdom traditions of history, art, and philosophy.

“And much less of this…” pressure to “decide” a life path too early.

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would be like for you to help a generation of students become both stronger and more compassionate.

Students say…

“When I hear things like ‘transformative experience’ or ‘life-changing class’ I tend to get a little pessimistic. But in this case those might be understatements to describe the impact your classes make.”

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