Teaching leadership: Post-crisis MBAs are changing emphasis

But business schools are also offering alternatives to the traditional programme for high-ranking executives, argues Abigail Townsend

THE financial crisis saw business leaders preside over companies that failed spectacularly – and the consequences of that are still being felt today.

Few will have forgotten the sight of some of the UK’s most senior bankers being grilled by MPs about their suitability to run a bank, and five years later, politicians are still not satisfied: earlier this month, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards called for jail sentences for “reckless” executives.

It’s therefore little surprise that business schools – and those applying to study at them – are putting a greater emphasis on the leadership elements of a Master of Business Administration (MBA) qualification. According to the QS TopMBA Applicant survey 2013, the number of candidates with leadership as their preferred specialisation is on the rise: 39.4 per cent, compared to 37.3 per cent in 2012 and 2011. General management remains the top specialisation, at 49.4 per cent, but others, such as strategy, have seen a decline, from 51.1 per cent in 2012 to 47.7 per cent.

Generally, all MBAs offer leadership elements to their programmes, though some schools have particularly strong reputations in this field. In Europe, the London Business School, France’s Insead and the Swiss school IMD stand out, while Harvard and Wharton in the US are high rankers for leadership training.

As well as leadership education within an MBA, there has been increase in dedicated courses on the subject.

In September, for instance, the Cass Business School’s debut Masters in Leadership programme gets underway. A two-year, part-time course comprising 18, two-day residential workshops, entry requirements include an honours degree or equivalent professional qualification, and ten year’s experience, five of which must have been in senior management.

Colin Carnall, director of executive education at Cass, believes the MSc will fill a gap in the market.

“I regularly come across people who are in the talent pool in an organisation and are on the development track; there’s also normally been a fair investment in them. They aspire to have a Masters degree, but no longer see an MBA as relevant. If you are a 38-year-old with senior responsibility it would feel retrospective, as you would have done much of what you are studying in your role already.”

The course will be run in conjunction with the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, with candidates able to study the tactics used by the leaders of the Second World War. (Cass is not unique in offering a military aspect in this field: Wharton, for instance, offers leadership development training at a military academy in Quantico, Virginia).

Cass also offers a five-day modular programme called The Character of Leadership. Launched in direct response to the banking crisis, it is aimed at the finance industry. The intention, the school claims, is to help executives “create the culture, processes and systems that will help the UK’s financial sector rebuild its reputation and success”.

As Carnall says, “if you are running a leadership programme, it must deliver on the strategic issues and help people manage teams, but it must also pay attention to the ethical issues involved in running a business.”


Does anyone follow you? That’s the simple question the Cranfield School of Management is helping its students answer. After a recent course redesign, the school hopes to shun the idea of leadership beheld by Apprentice candidates – where having the loudest voice in the room is synonymous with top leadership skills – in favour of self-awareness and using leadership to complete tasks in a timely, efficient manner.

Its courses have always incorporated leadership, but the concept now forms the spine of every programme. Why? Cranfield has a reputation for personal development and skills, but its MBA programme director Graham Clark grew frustrated that students were learning the right skills academically and theoretically, but not how to apply them in a business environment. “Now, the emphasis on leadership starts on day one,” he says. Rather than exclusively teach theory – as many other schools do – with each student judged on written assignments, Cranfield weighs success on more‚Äąpractical measures.

Clark believes that businesses often have the “worst kind of management: plenty of task forces, committees, reviews – but no action”. So Cranfield focuses on teaching students to play to their strengths, so “they know how to get things done”. He says providing this practical experience over academic, theoretical abstracts is highly-valued by students and their prospective employers alike.