June 27, 2011 12:12 am

Leadership depends on keeping it real

Recent and current MBA students are facing both a challenge and an opportunity. Like generations before them, they have chosen an MBA because they see work playing a central role in their lives and they want to be equipped for this journey.

The challenge they face is that they are entering a world where the forces of technology, globalisation, demography, society and natural resources are shifting many of the traditional ideas of how a business works, what leaders do and indeed how value is created.

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Our research in the Future of Work Consortium, which has involved more than 60 companies worldwide, looks at these challenges and opportunities. It shows that for many companies the wish list for their future leaders includes being able to relate to global issues, to build deep relationships with a diverse set of stakeholders, to act in a collaborative manner and to behave authentically.

How well is an MBA education preparing students for this rapidly changing world? Or are we as educators letting them walk into the future blindfolded? I recently ran a one-week elective with 70 students looking at how they can expect work and companies to evolve in the coming decades. It was a fascinating experience and I was struck by a number of observations.

First, whilst many students knew some of the forces that will change work, few had grasped the likely speed of the change in their lifetime, or how these forces would intersect, creating real velocity in some aspects. In particular, few really under- stood the impact that rising energy prices and likely carbon reduction programmes would have on how they would work.

They were also only just beginning to understand how they could prepare for working lives that for many of them could exceed 50 years. If, as companies tell us, the capacity to relate to global issues is crucial to the next generation of leaders, then an MBA education must build a deep awareness in students of the global issues they are likely to face.

In helping my students understand the future, I described possible vignettes from the daily working lives of people living in 2025. One of the threads running through some of these stories was a fragmented and lonely life. Separated from family ties, living in megacities and at the mercy of constant technological interruptions, it is possible to paint a rather bleak view of future working lives.

This seems far away from the deep relationships and collaboration that executives tell us will be so important for leaders in the future. What is clear is that we cannot assume, with the current trajectory of working lives, that these deep relationships are a given. Rather, we must understand that they have to be actively sought after and cultivated.

In The Shift, I describe three types of relationship network: those that connect to a small group of like-minded experts – the posse; those large diverse relational networks that reach out to many types of people – the big ideas crowd; and importantly, those based on deep and loving relationships – the regenerative community.

The posse and the big ideas crowd are the basis of the relationships that will be so important for leadership relationships. Many MBA programmes do a great deal to develop these networks and so are equipping students for the future. However, it is the regenerative community that addresses the leadership capacity that seems to be at the heart of how many executives describe future leadership as “the capacity to be authentic”. In a sense this is a reaction to the behaviour of many current leaders who behave in ways that often seem to be far from authentic. What is clear is that in an ever more shifting world, having a baseline of values and beliefs will be crucial. It is also clear that authenticity springs from having close friends who are prepared to provide a mirror for behaviour and a sounding board for decisions.

I wonder whether, in the excitement of an MBA programme, we really help students to understand that ultimately, it is in the creation of meaningful and authentic relationships that their future as a leader lies?

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School. The Shift: the future of work is already here, Harper Collins 2011.

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