How Can Business Schools Develop Leaders?

How Can Business Schools Develop Leaders?

Editor(s): Gianpiero Petriglieri, INSEAD and D. Scott DeRue, University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business

Developing leaders is what business schools aspire to contribute to society. The pledge to do so features prominently in mission statements, web pages and course brochures—and it is as appealing as it is controversial. While large numbers of students flock to undergraduate, MBA and executive programs that promise to transform them into “leaders,” the last decade has seen a mounting wave of criticism of what happens in those programs.

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Developing leaders is what business schools aspire to contribute to society. The pledge to do so features prominently in mission statements, web pages and course brochures—and it is as appealing as it is controversial. While large numbers of students flock to undergraduate, MBA and executive programs that promise to transform them into “leaders,” the last decade has seen a mounting wave of criticism of what happens in those programs. Questions have been raised from outside and within management academia not only about whether and how business schools truly fulfill their promise to develop leaders, but also about what kind of leaders their graduates become and on whose behalf—with whose interests at heart—they lead.

For all the fascination and controversy that surrounds leadership, there is broad consensus on two key points. First, becoming a leader is not just a matter of acquiring a body of knowledge and practicing a requisite set of skills. It entails deeper personal work. That is, it requires acquiring a clear sense of oneself—an identity—as a leader, and aligning it with one’s personal values, history and purpose. The second point of consensus is that becoming a leader—and staying one—is a social endeavor. It requires understanding, connecting and giving voice to, the social context that ultimately grants or denies one’s permission to lead. Learning to lead, in short, is not an abstract matter. The only way to do it is through experiences—of leading as well as of following—and ongoing reflection on those experiences to distil lessons that may in turn inform future practice.

Given all that, critics of business schools argue, those who aspire to lead gain precious little by removing themselves from the ‘real world’ of practice. Despite these concerns, more optimistic authors argue that there is value in business education as a platform for leadership learning because work does not always offer the optimal conditions for individuals to draw meaningful lessons from their efforts. Pressure is often high and the focus is on achieving more than on learning. This is why, advocates of business schools suggest, it is beneficial to be immersed in an educational environment focused squarely on learning. With the help of conceptual frameworks that enable them to make sense of their experiences, and supportive, diverse communities that assist them in examining those experiences from new and different angles, individuals may learn more than they would in the workplace. They may also gain access to opportunities to lead that they would not have otherwise. Furthermore, individuals whose careers unfold across different organizations often use business school courses as a way to expand their opportunities and facilitate transitions, relying on the communities that form there for direction and support. Whether because they orient students to the world of work, provide them a safe haven amidst uncertain and turbulent workplaces, or present them with chances to accelerate or reorient unfolding careers, business schools are powerful socializing agents. They often prescribe, more or less intentionally, what good leadership is and what it does—contributing to shape the pantheon of ideals that orients individuals’ aspirations and efforts. This makes it all the more important to examine how they shape both individual leaders and the meaning of leadership.

We are less concerned with whether business schools can or cannot develop “leaders.” Leaders are not the finished product of any single institution. Learning for leadership lasts a lifetime. The question instead is how business schools best contribute their students’ ongoing development as leaders. That means asking how to help them acquire knowledge and skills; stimulate personal reflection and clarification; facilitate understanding of, and connection with, communities that may affect and be affected by their leadership; and, most importantly, reinforce the habit of lifelong learning.

The Academy of Management Learning and Education has published numerous articles focused on how business school programs develop leaders—and how they could do it better. This selection, inevitably subjective, includes articles that revisit the social function of business schools as developers of leaders; offers suggestions for curricular reform and innovation; test the effectiveness of specific pedagogies or drawn lessons from them. Some are conceptual, others are empirical. They showcase the breadth of approaches that are currently employed or could be employed to develop leaders. Their lessons are useful to anyone who is fascinated by, and involved in, the complex endeavor of developing mindful, effective and responsible leaders.

Pages: 388
Publisher: Academy of Management
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Gianpiero Petriglieri, INSEAD and D. Scott DeRue, University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business