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There was a time when management was just management, the science of providing organisational support for innovators and salespeople to win customers and revenue.
Managers tracked resources, physical, financial and human, and tried to improve efficiency. Occasionally they made an acquisition or pushed into new markets, and this was strategy.
But somewhere along the line management morphed into the sexier-sounding “leadership”. Managers were globe-trotting executives – catalysts for change. They had a business press eager to turn them into icons, to photograph them in their penthouses, preening over their empires as if they, rather than their shareholders, owned them.
Business schools were eagerly complicit in this super-sizing of management. They no longer educated mere MBAs. They were churning out “future leaders”.
If Waterloo was won, as the Duke of Wellington claimed, “on the playing fields of Eton”, then the triumphs and disasters of our recent global economic history had their roots in the classrooms and cafeterias of Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, Insead and other leading schools.
It is not a legacy any of these schools may wish to boast of at the moment. In fact, it may be time for all of them to cool it with leadership and return to more modest goals and language. To recognise the truth that it makes no more sense for a business school to claim it teaches leadership than for a school of Byzantine studies to make the same claim.
What business schools can teach is organisational behaviour. They can teach compensation systems and recruitment processes. They can offer classes on cash and non-cash incentives, on training, promotion and the value of a corporate culture. They can offer frameworks for negotiations, strategy decisions and implementing change. But when they bundle this up and call it leadership, they risk leaving their students with the faulty impression that they are now qualified, if not obliged, to go into the world and lead. It breeds the arrogance for which MBAs are mocked.
Not all MBAs can be leaders, nor need they be. Every business needs followers: people who are good at what they do, who are able to implement the plans laid out by leaders.
Great leaders tend to be those who can synthesise, simplify and persuade. They provide clarity so that those below them can do their best to achieve a common goal. But leadership should not be the brass ring at the climax of every business career. It is a function, like finance or marketing, at which certain people excel and others do not, and should be treated as such.
Every MBA course must be re-evaluating what it does these days. The rise of the MBA almost exactly mirrors the rise of the economic system that is now in the hospital emergency room.
Leading business schools have tried to distance themselves from the fiasco, offering prescriptions to cure the illness without ascribing blame for its cause. Anyway, it’s just a few bad apples, they say. Nonsense. Business schools cannot trumpet their role in educating business leaders, then go quiet when their alumni are caught captaining the Titanic and manoeuvring the iceberg. Their alumni were derivative traders and regulators, collateralised debt obligation salesmen and corporate raiders. They were in this up to their necks, partly because there was no one higher up the ladder to stop them. They were leaders, so they led.
The recent officer class of global capitalism has been the MBA class. But it was a case of lions led by donkeys, at least in the financial industry. Honest individuals and businesses came to rely on a system that betrayed them.
Business does not need any more leadership courses – particularly not at the MBA level. It needs people who are competent, entrepreneurial and ethical, tough enough to make a buck yet modest enough to accept that free markets and businesses are simply components of healthy societies – not all that matters.
Philip Delves Broughton is author of ‘Ahead of The Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School’, Penguin Press. Published in the UK as ‘What They Teach You At Harvard Business School’, Viking
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