Good leaders have more than the right skills

It is probably the formal and informal interactions of students with faculty that have the most impact

In the wake of the near meltdown of the financial system in 2008, business schools came in for much criticism. This has put those who design programmes and teach in business schools under pressure to review their roles and responsibilities for educating tomorrow’s business leaders.

The temptation is to review the curriculum, perhaps putting more emphasis on the ethics of business, or sustainability. But, while curriculum review may produce some improvements, it is not the answer to what ails business education. It is not what business schools teach students that matters, it is what students experience during their programmes.

Three things make for good business leaders: competencies – the knowledge, understanding, skills and judgment needed to run a business well and satisfy shareholders; character – the values and virtues almost universally recognised as worthy of approval and praise; commitment – the aspiration, engagement and sacrifice required to do the hard job of business leadership, rather than just holding the leadership position.

All are influenced by the students’ business school experience inside and outside the classroom, from the way their admissions inquiries are handled, to their courses, programmes, examinations, graduations and job searches. And it is probably their formal and informal interactions with faculty that have the greatest impact since, rightly or wrongly, students believe that faculty speak for good business practice since this is what they purport to teach.

The most obvious element of faculty influence is in what faculty say and do. In the use of flippant expressions such as “business is all about creating shareholder value”, or describing topics such as business ethics and corporate social responsibility as “soft” compared with accounting or finance, faculty are conveying attitudes and feelings about what is and is not important and, by inference, what future leaders should be concerned about.

But these pale in comparison with the things faculty do not do. If business ethics is an elective course, then faculty are making a statement that “ethics are optional”; if nothing is taught about economic and social history, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s or the crisis in the financial system in 2008, then faculty are making “silent statements” about what they think business leaders should concern themselves with in the future. When the media features an alleged scandal in the business world and faculty do not address it in class, then they appear to be either indifferent to or condoning the action.

Even more insidious however, are events that are allowed to happen and pass without comment or action. When students cheat in class, use faculty teaching notes to prepare for their classes, intimidate other students, fail to pull their weight on group assignments while taking a free ride on the grade that is assigned, practise gender or other forms of discrimination – events that would not be tolerated in the best-run business organisations – then faculty are seen to be condoning these behaviours.

Such behaviour by faculty is not deliberate, but it often occurs. Faculty are specialists who can feel unprofessional outside their zones of expertise. They are also usually passionate about what they teach and want to use all their class time for teaching their subjects.

Yet if the events of the past few years have taught business schools anything, it is that what is taught is less important than the impact faculty have on students’ characters and their commitment to be good business leaders, not just skilled ones.

Faculty need to offer more comprehensive content and examine closely not only what is taught, but also their words and behaviour and what they allow to be said and done in their programmes and institutions.

Business schools must examine their actions not through the lens of their knowledge, but through that of the student experience. It is only when schools do this and design and deliver better experiences that they can contribute effectively to improved business leadership.

Jeffrey Gandz is a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario

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