Soapbox

July 21, 2013 11:30 pm

Not all MBA students can be leaders

The team players are just as important as the captain

Promotional materials for business schools nearly all boast how they are going to train the leaders of tomorrow, or how they will develop leadership skills on their various MBA and management development programmes.

Ten years ago the buzz words for advertising for business schools were “international” and “global”, but these have been replaced by “leadership”. It is quite difficult to find a school that is not promoting leadership on its website or in its programme brochures. But just how many leaders does business need?

We cannot all be leaders, otherwise there will be no one to be led! Yet this is what the majority of business schools are trying to do and what is more striking is that they are using this as their advertising message. But are such leadership courses effective and are they what the business world needs? Is leadership really a skill that suits each and every MBA student’s personality?

There is no advertising that promotes the contrary – that business schools are teaching managers how to be followers rather than leaders, team players rather than captains. Why don’t business schools promote the other aspects of management education that they excel in? How are students selecting a business school when they all conform to a set of standards imposed by accrediting bodies, all use the same textbooks and case studies and all promote leadership as their USP? Rankings give an indication that the school is a good one but not necessarily the right one for a particular student.

Yes, business needs leaders, but business also needs team players and managers with strong personal skills and sound technical knowledge, and that goes beyond the traditional business disciplines found on MBA programmes. The business environment is becoming increasingly complex and uncertain and the corporate world needs managers who can manage this uncertainty in an environmental, technological and geopolitical context that is in constant change.

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Successful managers may have certain skills and characteristics often associated with leaders – inspiration, vision, charisma – but they should also be able to take a holistic and contextual standpoint when making decisions. And they should be able to operate in an ecosystem at all levels: department, corporate, local, national and international.

For a company to function and to perform we need a minority of leaders and a majority of followers – just like society – and what is even more important, business needs team players, something that the corporate world is beginning to recognise.

Business schools need to change their teaching and their message to reflect the present landscape of global business needs. They should be teaching students how to be effective team players and encouraging them to take on a role that they are most comfortable with and that suits their personality, rather than encouraging false hopes of becoming the next great leader.

Business schools need to provide a learning environment that will enable participants to acquire the technical knowledge necessary to run a business efficiently and optimise resources. But management programmes also need to ensure that participants are developing the interpersonal skills that are indispensable in playing an effective part in intercultural and interdisciplinary project teams.

Many businesses today are operating across geographical and cultural boundaries and time zones, and business schools need to create geo-cultural project teams that can work effectively together at a distance. We need finance people to work with marketing people and to understand each other’s mindset and constraints. We need to develop co-operative and collegial skills in our MBA participants and bring out the best in each to suit their capabilities, their preferred role and moreover the role they are most comfortable with.

Many MBA students are still being taught instead of learning. They are acquiring knowledge and skills but not learning how to use them. Students are told what they should learn, rather than finding out for themselves what they need to learn and then seeking that knowledge themselves. Case studies where the students already know the outcome should make way for more action-based and problem-based learning. Live business cases should replace textbook cases. The student should take a more active part in the learning process.

Even though business schools advocate entrepreneurship they should go one step further and promote “intrapreneurship”. By encouraging employee engagement, providing an intellectual and creative environment and the necessary tolerance from top management in the event of failure (if you don’t try, you don’t succeed!), employees should be given the autonomy and stimulation to undertake projects and ventures in the same way as an entrepreneur would do with his or her own business.

Instead of basing their message on leadership, business schools should be providing the corporate world with the profiles it really needs. If schools were to promote these new learning techniques and content in their advertising and promotional literature it would provide students with a real choice of programmes, instead of the bland selection on the market today that all appear to offer a fairly standardised curriculum with the same message.

Business schools need to stop promising their students that they will all become the leaders of tomorrow – in any one company there can be only one leader.

Judith Bouvard is the dean and director of Grenoble Graduate School of Business, France.

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