As the pendulum swings: MBA leadership

Increasingly, the world is looking to its business schools, and MBA programs in particular to produce the leaders that shape our world. With a focus on technical analysis and technique, our business schools have failed to produce those leaders. That situation needs to change, or we are all in trouble.

Fortunately, it has started to change. The need for continued evolution in management is urgent, as our collective future hinges on it.

People often say that “leaders are born, not made” – but this is not correct. Raw material is not enough.

Deficit of leadership

We have plenty of smart individuals, plenty with technical knowledge and skills. Our business schools are increasingly global and competitive – with no lack of talent to choose from. Yet why have business schools produced those who helped lead to the most recent financial crisis? A crisis that renowned presidential adviser David Gergen described as resulting from a “deficit of leadership”?

The pendulum seems to be swinging.

More and more business schools are recognizing that their programs can play a key role in the creation of future leaders. The shift began a few years ago, but at that time schools were merely slapping the leadership label on the same old courses and programs, as though they hoped nobody would notice and that the ‘leadership thing’ was merely a passing fad.

But the real and sustained need for schools to produce more individuals able to assume meaningful leadership roles has fostered a cascade of new initiatives, some very promising.

What does it mean to develop leaders rather than simply wait for them to be born and hope the right ones get the chance to step forward? There are four dimensions that business schools have started addressing that can help create the leaders of consequence our world needs.

Leaders of consequence

First, leaders need to be self-aware and must exhibit integrity.

More and more programs are recognizing that admission criteria must extend beyond GMAT scores if we truly are trying to prepare tomorrow’s leaders. Even experienced students may not come to school fully cognizant of their own values and priorities, with a mature understanding of themselves.

Programs like the Aspen Institute’s “Giving Voice to Values” program and courses focusing on reflection are increasingly being used by business schools, not to implant students with any particular set of values, but to ensure they are more thoughtful, believe less that simplistic equations will answer deep questions, and come to see their own biases more clearly.

There is more recognition that the complex analysis and decisive action can be critically dependent upon leaders who know themselves and have practiced courageous acts.

Second, leadership often depends upon skills of facilitation, mentoring, and coaching to bring out the best in others. Thus, more business schools prepare future leaders by providing individual coaching for students and by asking students to provide peer leadership to one another.

Third, leaders need to be knowledgeable and articulate about leadership itself in order to be able to teach others.

You may ask, why is this important? Isn’t it just a perpetuation of the academic tradition of ‘teaching about’ leadership rather than ‘teaching how’ to lead?  The short answer is no.

Instead, it reflects a recognition that leaders often need to serve as the educators-in-chief in their organizations and must play a key role in creating what the University of Michigan’s organizational researchers Robert Quinn and Gretchen Spreitzer termed “a company of leaders.”

For leaders to create other leaders, they need to be able to explain leadership.

Finally, leaders need to be curious. Today’s problems do not come neatly pre-packaged and leaders need to help their organizations acknowledge mistakes better, look more for truly new answers, and learn more effectively. Leaders need to question more than they need to defend, to be able to keep their eyes open to emergent alternatives even as they push for urgent action.

This is not how we have historically judged our leaders. But it is what leaders of the future need in order to succeed.

Educator, author, and public servant John Gardner – who has been referred to as “a leader of leaders” – asked, why did the USA produce six world class leaders at its founding from a population of three million, when today’s United States with over 300 million citizens cannot offer half that number?

The world needs more leaders given the challenges we face. Among other sources, business schools will need to produce not only those who achieve positions of authority, but even more importantly, produce those who are truly tomorrow’s leaders of consequence.

Let’s hope the pendulum swings back toward leader creation.


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Related articles:
Leadership challenges facing the MBAs of today
The career value of MBA internships

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