Developing Leadership Savoir-Faire: What Business Schools Can Do for Our Graduates

In today’s world, Business Schools have assumed an importance far beyond their role in earlier times. They are now chief suppliers of graduates essential to economic development. They bring basic knowledge necessary for the functioning of organizations, leadership skills required to practice in the business profession, and confidence to perform an increasing portion of the ever-more demanding jobs in the advanced, and technologically sophisticated, global economy.

Navigating the uncharted waters of worldwide business is disconcerting for prepared adults, but even more so for the young Business School graduates. Because of the key role that these graduates will play in the business world in the near future, many have a stake in their education. Parents, employers, and communities are increasingly asking, if not subtly grumbling, if Business School graduates are well-enough trained for the jobs of the future, not of the past.

Much ink has been spilled on Business School rankings as indicators of success. Less effort has been invested in curriculum discussions of how exactly Business School faculty should prepare our graduates to cope with the extraordinary leadership challenges they face entering today’s business world. As a result, Business Schools are still largely viewed as a source of training in accounting, finance, and other “business” disciplines at the chagrin of Leadership scholars.

The overall limitation of such a traditional view is that the world of organizations has changed dramatically, perhaps more than ever before. One unmistakable manifestation is that many such jobs in accounting, finance, and computers can be outsourced to college graduates overseas who are willing to work for much less pay. A more equivocal faultfinding has been from employers that far too many Business School graduates, while hard working, are not well-trained to deal with other people effectively, i.e., they lack leadership skills. Ostensibly, calls for effective leaders permeates the air of our times, both in business organizations and in the society at large.

I propose that if we want to produce the most effective leaders of tomorrow, we should teach more leadership courses today. I avidly argue that teaching our graduates how to lead humans at work is as important as teaching them how to manage processes, products, technology.

Simply put, employees bring to the workplace their preferences, personalities, and attitudes. Some are open-minded and some are disagreeable, some are happy and some are grumpy. Nevertheless, it is ostensibly part of leader’s job to inspire all constituents to go above and beyond. Good luck doing this without some training in the psychology of leadership.

This is not to say that other areas of business are less important. Obviously, organizations must equipoise the right mix of ingredients to produce a recipe for success. What I am suggesting is that a few things will bring a company down faster than a demotivated workforce antagonized by insolent leadership (financial problems typically ensue), and that few other resources will allow a company to prosper faster than a motivated workforce coupled with inspirational leadership.

If we concur that Business School graduates can benefit from Leadership training, the next question becomes what content should be taught? There are many potential responses to this question, but I believe teaching research is at the crux of providing fairly reliable answers.

That is, the key to reliable answers in science is systematically studying sources of variance. In the case of Leadership effectiveness, the vagueness is palpable when it comes to causes of variation because it is not all that immediately clear what is in the minds of organizational members at any given time, making it difficult to readily figure out how motivate and lead them. I argue with ardor that research helps us to better understand the causes of systematic variation in motivation so that we can lead employee behavior modification in a more dependable fashion.

For some context, research on work motivation and leadership has been conducted over the last 120 years. It started in the field known as Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Since the mid 1960s, most of this work has moved to Business Schools, and morphed into a more organization-related discipline called Organizational Behavior. Both fields provide evidence-based answers accumulated over time, and not off-the-shelf guesswork.

Said differently, many motivational speakers, self-taught pundits, and folk psychologists may be entertaining to listen to, but their vernacular about what works and what doesn’t to motivate and lead employees effectively should not be taken too seriously by organizational leaders. If business leaders make choices about work motivation initiatives and leadership styles based on flimsy data and dubious recommendations, they put their organizations at risk.

In my conversations with leaders across the globe a common theme emerges. Many of them had no opportunity to study the social psychology of leadership before they found themselves consumed by its demands. They often recollect how it was only after their leadership tenure ended, that they found time to study the subject that had already filled their lives for decades.

Taken together, one way to help Business School graduates now develop the leadership savoir-faire so badly sought-out in today’s organizations is, well, to teach more leadership in Business Schools. For what it is worth, I personally wish I had such an education. Occasionally, I look back at my younger professional years with some vexation, realizing how differently I may have acted had I understood then what I only came to appreciate much later: lead people, manage processes.


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