“Business leaders aren’t well educated”, said a Mentor of mine, an ex-Executive Director of an international wholesale chain during a recent conversation. As provocative statements go, that one is sure to rank near the top of the pile!
But, he makes a good point.
The fuller context of our conversation was that the contemporary pathway to the top, to the CEO’s office, is one that for the most part tracks a traditional route that has a strong financial footing that marks the way. Research confirms that the majority of CEO’s have a background in finance and this would naturally result in a type of leadership emphasis that is hard to ignore. It is worth noting that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when higher education was weighted towards the humanities and those going on to forge careers in the corporate sector would have done so off of this platform. Then came a pre-occupation with the ‘sciences’ and the ‘neural pathway’ towards leadership shifted.
Exploring the role of intuition in leadership had started all this conversation with my Mentor. To what extent does intuition play a role in leadership? What is intuition and can one intentionally develop it? When considering the standard definition of intuition as, ‘the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious or rational reasoning’, then pursuing of such conversations seems at odds with traditional approaches to leadership development. Intuition would appear completely incongruent with prevailing sensibilities when it comes to the subject of leadership development and all things to do with leadership. How can one say this? Well simply look at the current approach and curriculum that dominates leadership development programmes and ask yourself how much of this (approach) explores, develops and nurtures intuition? The (optimistic) answer would be ‘not very much’. Given this reality it is reasonable to ask where are leaders then expected to learn about intuition? Add to this the leadership development metrics that are standard practice and the trap we are in is all too obvious.
The time has come to rethink the role and importance of MBA’s and how we prepare leaders to lead effectively in to the 21st Century. The unwillingness to challenge current models is that they are financially successful (for the ‘hosts’ – the Business Schools) and they have secured an entrenched ‘rationale’ amongst those willing to pay for them (both individuals and companies). Walter Baets, Director of the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business in South Africa, writes that, ‘95% of employers globally polled by the Graduate Management Admission Council in January 2016 said that hiring such graduates creates value for their companies’. Baets goes on to assert that the MBA is the, ‘most-sort-after of business qualifications’. In my experience he is correct.
The obvious problem is that an MBA specifically and Business Schools in general are not preparing current and future leaders for leadership in the new context. This ‘new context’ is one that incorporates complex adaptive systems (both internal and external) and volatility; it is one that necessitates unlearning and curiosity whilst demanding a deeper insight and understanding of leading difference differently; it requires a willingness to see disruption as a helpful tool in building the capacity to be adaptive and an acknowledgement that to be a futurefit leader, there is a limit to the value of experience. Current curriculum and teaching methodologies come up short when held up against this ‘new agenda’.
The economic meltdown of 2008 and beyond highlighted the bankruptcy of the leadership development process as characterized by the multiple leadership programmes on offer. In spite of such evidence those responsible for leadership development have been slow to change their approach. When one starts pulling at this thread (how we prepare leaders to be futurefit) the danger is that the entire fabric of our corporate organization could unravel. How we both organize and measure our work; the conversations we have both internally and externally; the very business model and sustainability of our businesses – the ‘natural order of things’…all of this starts to be challenged and this is a bridge too far for current leaders. We ‘know’ this but are simply unwilling to act on such knowledge.
It is that simple; it is that complex.
In 2007 William Duggan, a senior lecturer at Colombia Business school, wrote a ground-breaking book titled, ‘Strategic Intuition’. Ground-breaking because it was the first time (as far as I know) that strategy was so formally linked to intuition. Strategy was always seen as something to be planned; something built on analysis in which there was little or no room for ‘intuition’. The prevailing strategic models, like that of Porter’s, form the kernel of the MBA approach, one that has little regard for intuition and topics of that nature. So whilst Duggan’s work challenges traditional ways of thinking and practicing strategy, the bigger picture is that preparing leaders to lead effectively into the future has to change. We need business schools who incorporate more creativity in the design and implementation of their curriculum; we need a whole new set of how we measure the outcomes and effectiveness of the investment made in such programmes; we need greater collaboration between the business schools and the clients; we need to see this as a process and not a programme. There are a lot of, ‘we needs’ but those listed would be good ones to start with as they chop away at some of the fundamentals involved in the traditional model.
In short business schools need to follow the dissident voices from within their own ranks and urge their clients to do the same. What do I mean by this? Well, two examples of ‘dissident voices’ would be Duggan’s work already mentioned (when it comes to strategy) and another would be the excellent, ‘uncommon sense, common nonsense’ by Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles of London Business School. Both these works challenge – maybe ‘lampoon’ would be a better description in the case of the latter book, current approaches and wisdom. Both indicate that the thinking and words are ‘there’ and yet they don’t seem to translate into the design and execution of the majority of programmes. ‘Why is that?’ is a good question to be asking.
Daniel Pink makes the point that management is a television set’ and not a ‘tree’…in other words it was invented for a purpose and, as with any TV, needs replacing every now and then. Given that leadership is always context specific then it stands to reason that if the world has changed, then we need to think differently about leadership; the world has changed.
What would be some of the things that could be done or taken further if any of what I’ve written rings true or you are in a position to influence leadership development and what it looks like?
- Read ‘uncommon sense and common nonsense’
- Relook at how you go about leadership development and the partnership you have forged in this domain.
- Revisit what you really hope to achieve through your investment in leadership development and how you will measure your return on investment (Hint: don’t rate the programme; rate the outcome of the programme – after 6, 12, 18 months. B.F. Skinner suggests that ‘education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten’)
- Ask what it is that the executive (senior leaders) are learning – if they are not intentionally supportive (and by this I mean supportive beyond the expected ‘verbal endorsement’), then there is a high chance that the outcomes of your leadership development will stall before it impacts on your organisation.
- Look up (from what you are current doing) and see who is doing what in the bigger picture when it comes to preparing leaders to be futurefit (Hint: Look outside of your own industry)
Developing leaders capable of leading into the future just might be the most important and strategic of initiative in your business.
It was a provocative statement over coffee with someone that regard as a mentor that launched an important discussion. Good leaders understand the value of ‘provocative statements and questions’ and so what might be some provocative statements / questions (aka ‘thinking’) that you need to entertain concerning your leadership development?