Leadership isn’t a simple case of bold versus bad

Tom Welsh
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WHAT makes a good leader? Who is the exemplar of corporate leadership? Are you a Margaret Thatcher in the boardroom or a Kofi Annan? One might assume that these are the kinds of questions business schools are seeking to answer for their students. They are not.

Although leadership education is an increasingly important part of a typical MBA curriculum, the roots of that importance means that teaching leadership is very different to subjectively unearthing what made Alexander the Great.

Business schools are discovering and adapting innovative new methods of teaching leadership. These methods range in approach and rationale, but at their heart is a belief that the next generation of corporate leaders must have more than charisma, do more than inspire, and be better leaders than those that came before them.

HEC Paris, the French international business school, offers an off-campus leadership bootcamp to its MBA students at Saint Cyr, France’s equivalent to Sandhurst. Participants are put through intensive tasks by army officers, in exercises directly derived from real military training.

According to Bernard Garrette, associate dean of the MBA programme at HEC Paris, the tasks are designed to develop decision-making, motivational influence and personal engagement. It isn’t about officers teaching students how to bark orders, but to maximise efficiency and encourage practical planning.

Building bridges across rivers, or putting a raft together to cross a lake “complements traditional classroom teaching” by forcing “participants to tackle uncommon situations and focus on implementation efficiency, rather than spending all their time analysing conceptual issues.”

Practicality is key. Although a chief executive is unlikely to instruct his board to build him an ark, the physicality of the training can bear dividends. Garrette says that “as physical activities involve undertaking actions much more tiring and costly than intellectual effort, they show the value of thinking before acting to maximise efficiency, while reaching the objective.”

Cass Business School takes a different approach. Roy Batchelor, associate dean for MBA programmes at Cass, says its emphasis is about “making students understand themselves.”

Before induction, students take part in a neuro-scientific questionnaire, which gives the professors an idea of their preferred working styles. “We try to talk, individually and in groups, about how they can use their strengths and adapt so that their weaknesses don't get in their way.”

Batchelor believes leadership training should be at the heart of all aspects of an MBA. “It’s threaded through our course,” he says. “We have to help people live with ambiguity and fuzziness, and if students understand what they’re relatively good at, they will be better able to recognise what is needed at particular moments.”

“It’s not a formula, it’s not a rule, we don’t know the answers,” Batchelor explains, but by encouraging students to discover how they react to problems, teaching them to listen, and by inspiring long-term, sustainable planning, MBA students can be better set up to take on leadership positions in their future careers.

Professor Kim Turnbull James teaches the leadership and top management skills elective as part of the Cranfield School of Management MBA. Her emphasis is on organisational leadership – “how to get the top team to work together, how to encourage people to take initiative for key projects, and how to achieve the right kind of alignment of practices and processes.” The key priority for Cranfield’s programme is to ensure individuals are thinking about “the organisation and how an organisation addresses its strategies.” She explains that this is what companies want.

Leadership “is not equated with the leader,” it is “a response to things that need to happen in organisations,” she says. It’s “highly controversial to say that there are good or bad aspects of leadership.”

Turnbull James thinks it’s important that leadership teaching is divorced from popular notions of good or bad, ideal or flawed. It’s “a more complex view of leadership that includes aspects that aren’t just linked to the ego of the leader.” She criticises stand-alone courses purporting to make people leaders. “It’s not something you can teach in a corner.”

To all these MBAs, teaching leadership is about teaching nuance. As Turnbull James makes clear, it’s about providing “a practical grounding of experience in the real world,” not academic, theoretical abstracts. There is no solution to the ideal characteristics of a leader, but future leading executives can at least learn how to act and think like one.