Hard work and technical ability might once have been enough to ensure promotion to the boardroom or the partnership table. Today interpersonal skills, a flair for selling ideas and a capacity for developing people are all just as important. But even combining all those talents as good management is no longer sufficient. The top positions in business are occupied by leaders now, not managers.
Leadership isn’t just a fancy name for effective management. There are obviously common elements to being a good manager and being a leader, but the pixie dust of great leaders comes down to their ability to inspire others. Professor Anat Lechner at the NYU Stern School of Business challenges the command-and-control-follow-me approach, instead emphasizing an enabling role. In her courses on leadership training, she says, participants learn to distribute power and support from behind rather than simply leading from in front. “As leaders inspire the minds and hearts of their followers, we also ask them to act humbly and ‘egolessly’,” she explains. “They need to empower others to take a front seat by facilitating relationships, authenticity, meaningful conversations and the self-expression of team members.”
At its best, leadership thereby achieves much more than simple management can. In a survey of 50 global companies, the research firm ISR found a direct link between effective leadership and the bottom line. In organizations whose employees gave their superiors an “average” leadership rating, sales improved just over 6% within a year. In organizations where they rated them more highly, sales rose more than 10%.
But don’t you have to be born with leadership skills, just as you have to be born with a great singing voice or natural drawing ability? Maybe. Many of the world’s major business schools have specific leadership departments, with courses that ostensibly teach in the classroom how to lead. But even those schools appear to admit that the picture is ambiguous. According to Professor David Sims of the Cass Business School in Britain, “We have come to the conclusion that the idea of the ‘born leader’ does not stand up. Born to lead what, when and with whom? The idea of leaders being ‘made’ is equally romantic. Nobody knows how to ‘make’ a leader.” So schools instead seek to develop the nascent leadership abilities that people already have. How do they impart the special skills that an executive may need to motivate and inspire in difficult times like these?
Marc Buelens, who teaches in the international MBA program at the Vlerick Management School, in Belgium, now devotes a large part of his leadership course to an extended case study of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. Sometimes overshadowed by his contemporary Robert Scott, Shackleton demonstrated remarkable leadership skills in managing to save his whole team after they became trapped in Antarctic ice during a failed expedition. “Examining Shackleton’s methods can teach you five key lessons a leader needs to learn to perform effectively,” Buelens says. “How to bring order and success to a chaotic environment, how to work with limited resources, how to let go of the past, how to embrace troublemakers and how to be self-sacrificing.”
Other schools are also finding less conventional ways to teach how to lead under pressure. New students getting masters of management degrees at Nyenrode Business School, in the Netherlands, find themselves in a “boot camp” run by ex-marines, where they are taught to be not just good leaders but good followers, too. Participants in that school’s international MBA program work with professional actors, role-playing through challenges at organizations where they’re also undertaking actual projects.
In Spain, at the ESADE business school, participants in executive education programs pass through a theater class aimed at improving the communication skills that the school sees as key to effective leadership.
Many schools may take more orthodox approaches, but they’re still trying to confront the challenges presented by the current economic crisis. At Georgetown’s McDonough School, all MBA students are now required to undertake a “Leadership and Business Ethics” course, because, as Associate Dean Jett Pihakis puts it, “We tie these two things together, because we believe they are inextricably linked, and we want students to appreciate the connection.” The school also ensures that students study leadership through a wider lens, organizing a Leadership Breakfast Series that features not only the chief executive officers of major oil companies, investment banks and consumer goods giants, but also senior U.S. government officials and former leaders from around the world.
What all these schools appear to have in common is that in preparing their graduates to lead through the crisis they are focusing on practical reality rather than abstract theory. “It’s not that we ignore leadership theories,” says Carol Rue of Britain’s Warwick Business School, “but we are reacting to feedback we get from recruiters of MBAs, saying that we must give students the practical skills they will need to lead in the real world. That’s why we don’t just provide coaching but also send everyone out to work with local not-for-profit organizations addressing specific problems or challenges. We find that that is one of the best ways of developing really practical leadership skills–skills that are perhaps needed more now in the workplace than ever before.”