Business schools put more emphasis on developing 'leaders' rather than 'managers'

Is leadership a quality that emerges naturally in certain situations, or is it something that can be taught in a classroom? Today, business schools contend leadership can be learned and even brand their MBA programs on the promise to create impactful leaders, according to the New York Times.

Most business schools today emphasize leadership more than management, though it hasn't always been this way. For the larger part of the 20th century, business schools promised to create strong managers, and the power of this role increased until the 1970s when the nation, faced with a recession, turned on its management elite and accusing it of negligence, according to the report. In turn, business schools needed a new pitch, thus landing on leadership, according to the report.

Business schools jumped on the leadership bandwagon following the publication of the paper "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" by Harvard professor Abraham Zaleznik, PhD, in 1977. Dr. Zaleznik's paper purported, yes, leaders and managers are different — "Leaders were visionaries who got the troops excited to march into battle. Managers were platoon sergeants who actually marched them into battle," according to the New York Times.

The three primary pedagogical approaches for teaching leadership lie on a spectrum, with knowledge and theory on one and technique on the other. For example, Kenan-Flagler at the University of North Carolina depends on sociology and psychology to build a scientific, theoretical approach to teaching leadership, while Northwestern's Kellogg, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton and the University of Chicago's Booth emphasize role-playing and team building exercises, the New York Times reports.

The third approach aims to create "authentic" leaders, and encourages students to lead based on their own values and ideals. At Harvard, one course's description says authentic leaders "exhibit high standards of integrity, take responsibility for their actions and are guided by enduring principles rather than short-term experience," according to the report. Most schools use a mix of all three approaches, addressing the need for leaders to work in teams, influence others, manage conflict and communicate.

Business school professors' perceptions on whether leadership can really be taught or must be learned through real life experience vary, according to the report. For example, Ann L. Cunliffe, PhD, an organizational studies expert and professor at the University of Bradford in England used to feel uncomfortable about teaching leadership in the classroom, but later changed her mind once she realized leading a business and a class were challenging in similar ways.

John Van Maanen, PhD, a professor of management at MIT Sloan conveyed a more wary opinion of business school's emphasis on teaching leadership.

"Even today, three-plus decades in, there's no real definition of it," Dr. Maanen told the New York Times. "We can make people more conscious of ethical dilemmas in business, of the difficulty of directing people in times of adversity and the confidence and communication skills necessary to do so. But the idea that such skills can be transmitted so that you can lead anybody at any time, that's ideologically vacuous."

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