Good managers are no longer good enough. Top companies want to hire and develop leaders. And business schools have been quick to claim that they are ideal places in which to learn leadership.

But in the process business schools may be in danger of offering something that students simply do not want and that companies do not actually value.

At HEC Paris, MBA students can spend their final term specialising in a given area, such as finance, strategy or entrepreneurship. Most graduates then go on to mention this specialisation on their résumé by describing their degree as MBA (finance) or MBA (strategy). Based on the observation that an increasing number of graduates start their post-MBA careers by joining “leadership development programmes” offered by multinational corporations, such as Amazon’s “Pathways” or Nissan’s “Rotational Development Program”, HEC Paris launched a “Leadership in Global Organizations” specialisation. The students praise the concept and the content, however, they vetoed the “leadership” label, arguing that they would not dare use such a terminology in their job search.

Why was this? Based on feedback, it seems that these students do not believe that prospective employers will accept that an MBA course can turn them into business leaders. And they might just be right. Rather than stating leadership on their CV, students need to demonstrate leadership through their actions.

For many years commentators have acidly and publicly questioned how someone can learn how to become a business leader while sitting in a classroom, pointing out that such iconic figures as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Branson have spent no more time at business school than it takes to deliver an inspirational speech. However, I suggest that the true message is reaching all but the most recalcitrant members of the audience – namely that business schools provide an environment where future leaders can develop and thrive, rather than be created out of thin air.

The role of business schools is to bring out and validate the skills and capabilities that so many of their students already have and then help to contextualise them so that they can be used properly in complex organisations.

The problem is that much of the development work that goes on at business schools in this area is not fully understood, either by prospective students or potential employers. Consequently business schools need to review what they communicate about leadership learning.

To begin with schools should address the terminology around leadership in which they have played such a large part in defining and promoting. When schools promise to go beyond developing the skills of management to developing those of leadership do they understand just how much baggage the latter term comes with? Say the word ‘leadership’ to the average, educated and interested person and the chances are the term will conjure up the traditional picture of a heroic leader – out in front, making decisions and, all too often male, like some latter day Napoleon or Alexander. Perhaps this is not surprising. Turn to the business pages of any leading news medium and this view is perpetuated by otherwise sensible and well-informed journalists.

However, in this age of increasing complexity and genuinely global markets, few, if any, business school academics still believe that such a model is desirable or even possible, at least in the context of multinational corporations. Instead, most favour the concept of non-heroic leadership where those in positions of power acknowledge that no one individual has all the answers. Ego and personal prestige must therefore be put aside so that the leader can become the oil in the wheels, ensuring that the right people come together in the right way to make an organisation as agile, innovative and effective as possible. In most cases, the skill that matters most (and is in shortest supply) is the ability to persuade and motivate peers without the formal authority of direct line management.

Business schools need to help their students to become more innovative and more influential. If they can achieve that, they may find that both students and employers will come to see leadership courses on a CV as a real attraction rather than an expression of either arrogance or naïveté.

The author is professor of strategy and business policy and associate dean, MBA programme, HEC Paris.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article