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Teaching Leadership

How do we define leadership, other than that we know it when we see it? 

May 30, 2016

If any part of the university should understand leadership, it would be the business school. Not only do the faculty research leadership, they also impart this knowledge to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as participants from across the globe in a variety of executive education programs. While estimates for the amount spent on leadership development vary widely, leadership education and development is big business. TrainingIndustry.com estimates that corporate spending on training (including both insourced and outsourced spend for all types of training, not just for management and leadership education) was $356 billion in 2015. In a recent McKinsey article, Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer estimates the amount spent on leadership development in the United States alone ranges from $14 billion to $50 billion per year.

But what is leadership? The definitions of leadership are many, reminding me of an utterance by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward in a 1964 case about obscenity. When asked whether he could define obscenity, Judge Potter said that he couldn’t define the type of material that would be considered obscene, “but I know it when I see it.” Leadership can be a bit like that.

Type leadership into Amazon.com and you get 183,316 listings (strategy gets you 230,338). Do the same with Google, and 753 million listings for leadership come up in 0.4 seconds. There’s a lot of talk and ink devoted to leadership so what, exactly, is leadership?  Business News Daily offers “33 Ways to Define Leadership.” Merriam Webster defines leadership as “a position as a leader of a group, organization, etc.; the time when a person holds the position of leader; and the power or ability to lead other people.” BusinessDictionary.com defines transformational leadership as “Style of leadership in which the leader identifies the needed change, creates a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executes the change with the commitment of the members of the group.” This site also says that “Unlike management, leadership cannot be taught.” Hmmmm.

In their 2010 book, Rethinking the MBA: Business Eduction at a Crossroads, authors Srikant Datar, David Garvin, and Patrick Cullen note that “Virtually all of the top business schools aspire to ‘develop leaders,’ yet their efforts in this area are widely viewed as falling short.” Part of the problem may be that we know very little about what constitutes good leaders or how to develop transformational leadership and the prevailing forces in business schools are unlikely to get us there. In his 2007 book, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, Rakesh Khurana from Harvard Business School quotes Ralph Stodgill in saying an “endless accumulation of empirical data has not produced an integrated understanding of leadership” and notes “the probability that leadership studies will make significant strides in developing a fundamental knowledge base is fairly low. The reality is that inside universitites and research-based business schools, leadership research has relatively low status.”

Many business schools – as well as companies – have picked up the challenge of leadership development. However, Pfeffer notes that “the enormous resources invested in leadership development have produced so few results.” Pfeffer goes on to say that the problem with “the vast leadership industry. . .stems from the oft-unacknowledged tendency to confuse what people believe ought to be true with what actually is” and that the “moral framing of leadership substantially oversimplifies the real complexity of the dilemmas and choices leaders confront.” A Financial Times article discussing Pfeffer’s book, Leadership BS, paraphrases the main themes as “bosses are not modest, leaders are bound to lie (even “great leaders such as Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela), authenticity is overrated and the gap between aspiration and reality is one reason that trust in leaders and leadership gurus has evaporated.”

Anne Lytle, Professor and Director of Leadership at Monash Business School puts it this way:

“I think the vast majority of business schools do a completely insufficient job at developing transformational leaders.  When we think of what we mean by a transformational leader, it is someone with "character" and in the old terminology "charisma".  Someone who is a role model, who creates vision and motivates energy and identity, who inspires trust, loyalty and admiration of followers in the pursuit of "higher" goals.  Probably a number of the business schools who claim transformational leaders as their "products" have not necessarily created them, but intelligently selected applicants who are already far along or primed for that journey.”

Deborah Ancona, Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management cautioned a too-narrow view of leadership, emphasizing that leadership, particularly the type that involves large-scale change, is needed at all levels:

Too often we associate transformational leadership with the charismatic leader at the top of the organization who provides the vision and everyone else just follows.  However, any kind of leadership effort of this type in today’s fast-paced, complex world really needs “distributed leadership”—leadership at all levels.  That would mean input and consultation with people inside and outside of the organization who have fresh information and insights about customers, markets, new technologies, competitive challenges and future trends, creating synergies among people driving existing initiatives and those excited about creating something new, and letting others throughout the organization drive change in their own part of the organization with simple rules guiding alignment across initiatives. The world is too complex for a one-person show, although you certainly do need great leadership at the top to provide the guidance, safety, passion, and container to enable others to lead and act, while avoiding chaos.”

Lata Dhir, Associate Professor at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, recognizes how difficult it can be to teach leadership effectively: “Teaching leadership is complex; therefore how it is taught has to be creative.”  Guy Pfeffermann, CEO of the Global Business School Network, puts it this way:

“Successful management education prepares students for tough challenges they will encounter in the ‘real world.’ Well-run experiential learning programs do just that. They offer students unique opportunities to dive into unfamiliar territory, work as a team, yet think independently, and for many, to hone their leadership skills."

Leadership means different things to different people – and is considered, researched and taught quite differently at business schools across the globe. This said, most business schools teach leadership and some of them have created some innovative approaches to the content. Here are a few examples:

Monash Business School: Monash is using brain science and evidence-based research to create a platform that helps students develop and practice core leadership behaviors and apply them in their daily lives. Students at Monash devote 25% of their curriculum load each term to focus on their leadership development, such as self awareness, sense of identity and purpose, resilience/growth mindset, empathy, and mindfulness. According to Anne Lytle, Director of Leadership, a great deal of the focus in Monash’s Leadership and Personal Development Program is on the fundamental skills, such as having good self-awareness, self management and empathy means that a student will have the foundations for having difficult conversations and making an inspirational presentation about a meaningful vision.

S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research: According to Lata Dhir, Associate Professor at SPJIMR, “Our pedagogy is rooted in our philosophy of promoting value-based growth and influencing practice.” SP Jain students take a course, Personal Growth Lab, that gives them deep insights into themselves and helps them to identify their core strengths and areas of development. According to Dhir, they make use of various tools like feedback and psychometric tests, outbound activities and leadership assessment, and the results of the lab exercises are crystalized to help them create a leadership development plan to help them chart an effective roadmap for personal development.

MIT Sloan: MIT, a long-time proponent of action learning, uses a series of Action Learning Labs to allow students to “put classroom theory into practice.”

Stanford GSB: Stanford offers Leadership Labs, a required course for first-year MBA students, that teaches students the fundamentals of decision-making, critical thinking, organization behavior, as well as a series of exercises and simulations “designed to create the urgency and ambiguity that frequently accompanies real-life leadership challenges.” Among the most popular leadership-related courses at Stanford is Interpersonal Dynamics, aka “the touchy Feely” class” that has been voted the most popular elective for 45 years.

UNC: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has created an app on leadership that “guides students through their leadership journey using the very latest interactive technology” and plays a role in the school’s Leadership Immersion capstone course. It includes interactive content about UNC’s leadership methodology, as well as a leadership library of articles and insights on leadership.

Yale: The Yale School of Management’s Leadership Development Program, which cover’s a student’s entire program focuses on four levels of leadership: at the individual, interpersonal/team, organizational, and global levels. The school recently announced a Global Virtual Teams course, that is now part of the core curriculum.


As Colm Kearny, Dean of Monash Business School, notes “Business schools don’t have a monopoly on leadership.” This is increasingly true, with a variety of players from specialized companies (e.g., Fullbridge), new units of consulting firms (e.g., McKinsey), Continuing Education units (e.g., UC Berkeley Extension) and a variety of MOOC players (e.g., Udemy for Business) getting in on the game. Given all of the action in this area, leadership development will continue to be a growing, evolving, more competitive business well into the future.


What does leadership mean at your school? What are you doing to equip students to be effective leaders when they leave your program?



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