MBA University Leadership …

US universities began offering modern style MBA degrees from 1940 (University of Chicago). These had evolved from earlier Masters degrees based on bookkeeping and accountancy (Tuck Business School), developed to meet the needs of rapid industrialization.

MBAs were essentially designed to develop management skills. Not until the early 1990’s was leadership recognized as the great weakness in America’s business future, and business schools responded urgently with radically redesigned programs focused on ‘leadership’ (Polito et al, 2002).

By the mid 2000s, rapid changes in management theory and the internet’s democratization of information resulted in hierarchical organisational structures being flattened, requiring a shift from top-down military-style procedural management of employees to a new identity for ‘leadership’ that resulted in a proliferation of leadership ‘training’. From this followed an accelerated development of what is now a multi-billion dollar global leadership training industry (Ready & Conger, 2003).

Meanwhile, the language used in the industry has not changed. For example, the word ‘leadership’ itself is no accident, but a continuation of the historic attachment to military linguistic tradition. Equally, with CEO’s receiving such concentrated attention from the business press, it should be remembered that a Chief Executive Officer is in fact a Naval rank – one step below Captain and responsible for the daily operations of a warship.

But increasing doubt surrounds the value and effectiveness of MBA leadership programs. In their damning 2005 review of Business Schools, Professors Warren Bennis (Chair, Leadership Institute, University of Southern California) and James O’Toole (Bennis & O’Toole, 2005) conclude that business schools have lost their way and can no longer claim to serve the interests of the corporations that rely on them for graduates prepared for high leadership roles. The reasons offered for this conclusion is that, increasingly, senior academic staff have no actual business experience (many have never been inside a corporate building) and instead of being ranked on the success of their students, they are measured on the quantity of their individual research output.

In commenting on this report in 2011, Forbes Magazine chief leadership writer Drew Hansen updated the original findings by researching several business schools, concluding that MBAs and leadership programs are not aimed at improving the competence of their graduates or instill norms of ethical behavior, but principally at increasing graduate’s salaries. He concluded by observing that leaders are created in the crucible of life, not in a classroom.

Significantly for my research, Hansen echoes my own position, presented two years prior in the Prologue of my book Seventh Journey: ‘The first thing I discovered (on this expedition) is that leadership cannot be taught. If it is being taught, it may just be management, rebadged at a higher price … those who have the advantage of tough experience will understand the ineluctable truth: leadership is neither born nor taught, but circumstance calling forth a champion’ (de Blonville, 2009, p. xi).