Learning to Be a Leader in B-School

Prior to taking my executive MBA course in Global Leadership in Singapore, the students (many of whom are middle or senior managers working for global firms) are required to complete a brief assignment and answer several questions. One of these questions is why it is important for them to want to be a leader. Over the years, I have compiled hundreds of these responses, and they tend to cluster in three different categories. About a third refers to students’ ambitions to be promoted and move up to senior management positions and to have a successful professional career. Another third are about their strong drive to achieve challenging goals. And about a third are about their motivation to help or to be part of a larger mission (they are the “givers” rather than “takers,” in Adam Grant’s terminology). The following is a sample of answers from this third group of students:

I enjoy the challenge of helping others to succeed and take pride in my ability to develop and empower people. I also like building high performing teams that have a common goal with each member understanding their vital role in achieving that goal – “the golden thread.”
I believe that I want to be a leader so that I can help others and improve the well-being of others.
Yes, it would give me immense satisfaction to look back and recognize that my leadership has developed a set of capable individuals and has contributed towards the growth of the company.

I enjoy seeing my contributions producing greater impact to a wider audience and seeing results. Being a leader is about being a knowledgeable servant, a change initiator, an adaptable learner, a good communicator and a person of action.

I enjoy helping people grow, by mutually sharing knowledge and experiences, building on their strengths and developing the areas where they need help. I get a lot of energy from looking at what we have today, and what we need to succeed in the next 3-5 years, and building plans to bring that vision to life.

From my experience having worked for over 30 years in Fortune 500 companies and continuing to coach and consult with executives, I’m not surprised at this distribution of responses. While only a third see their motivation in terms of a larger mission, it is this group of future leaders who are vitally important to the long-term success of their organizations.

Now for those of you who have an MBA, who has gone through any leadership programs or courses, or have read books on leadership, I am sure you are familiar with the many explanations and theories of leadership. Amazon last month alone had over 30,000 book results on this subject. As a professor who teaches leadership in a business school, and as a consultant who coaches managers and executives to become better leaders, I am reasonably acquainted with many of the debates about leadership (e.g., whether leaders are born or made, whether we need management or leadership, whether leadership really makes a difference in organizations). In a new book very critical of the Harvard Business School (and many other business schools, by implication), the writer Duff McDonald resurrects many of these criticisms in a chapter entitled “Can Leaders Be Manufactured?”

What exactly are his arguments against the business school approach to leadership and leadership education? First, he claims that there is no general agreement on a definition of leadership. Perhaps, he argues, this is because leadership cannot be taught in the same way as other business topics (such as accounting) because it is “… more of an emergent quality and context-specific.” In other words, leadership cannot be defined because it is something that a person either has or does not have in a particular situation.


Second, by emphasizing the individual qualities of the leader (that is, the leader as a heroic individual), HBS and other business schools are ignoring the collaborative aspects of leadership.  Third, leadership cannot be boiled down into a set of skills or placed in a pedestal as a virtue because it (see earlier argument above) “… severs the whole notion of leadership from its ties to identity, community, and context.” For McDonald’s, leadership cannot be reduced to a number or packaged into some kind of checklist.

And fourth, business schools “conflate” leadership with formal authority and hierarchical supervision. In other words, he claims that business schools teach students that to be a leader, they have to be a boss first. Furthermore, business schools (especially HBS) teach students to be leaders so they can advance their careers and improve corporate financial performance. As evidence that HBS has not produced leaders who have made a difference in making the world better, he points out that their graduates tend to “horde together” in similar industries depending on where they can make the most money.

McDonald’s blistering critique of the business school approach to leadership seems over-the-top (as is much of the book) and he is selective in citing quotations and books that support his arguments. His bias against teaching leadership (and by extension, organizational behavior) is exemplified with his statement that starting in the 1950s, when corporations decided to outsource leadership training to business schools, this was proof positive indicating that they (and human resources) were merely showing “a feigned interest in the human side of corporate life.”

Based on my reading of his book, I doubt that McDonald has reviewed the extensive scientific literature on leadership, sat in on some recent classes on leadership, or interviewed recent business school graduates who have taken courses in organizational behavior. In fact, his view of leadership can be summarized succinctly when he states, in another section of the book: “Most of us can agree that leadership is an emergent quality; it reveals itself in the moment, and you either rise to the challenge or you don’t.” (p. 197) To paraphrase McDonald: Really? Is that all there is? That leadership is all about just stepping up when the situation calls for it? On this one point, I agree that rising to the challenge is certainly part of being a leader. As management guru Marshall Goldsmith likes to point out, courses in leadership and company programs to develop leaders won’t do a bit of good unless the person himself or herself makes a decision to become a better leader. However, to modify an established psychological principle, PL = M x A x E. In other words, your performance as a leader (PF) is a function not only of your Motivation (Do you want to be a leader? Do you have the desire? Do you have the courage?) but also of your Ability (or more generally, your skill set) and the Environment (Does the situation help or hinder the exercise of leadership, e.g., does your organization encourage you to grow as a leader, do you have role models or others who have influenced you?). For McDonald’s, leadership seems to be all about the M. In my experience in coaching leaders, it seems that many individuals don’t necessarily make a conscious decision to become a leader. Leadership for them becomes more of a process and a discovery, where over time (as they form a direction or point of view, try to influence others or get encouragement from role models), they increase their self-awareness and find out they want to do this, and/or they might be good at this.

I also agree with his criticism of what passes for much of leadership education these days in business schools, where such leadership courses seem isolated and unintegrated with courses such as finance and marketing. There is much more that can be done to embed leadership perspectives in these functional courses. The other major criticism that McDonald has about business schools like HBS is what he considers to be an almost total reliance on the case method. This is not quite fair; many business schools have supplemented their lectures and cases with simulations and experiential activities such as role-plays so students can get behavioral feedback. They have taken to heart the research findings (and common sense) indicating that much of adult learning comes from experience and learning from others. Many business schools have designed structured experiences so that students get feedback, reflect on what they have done, and raise their self-awareness. This is especially important for leadership courses, where students need to observe, practice, and get feedback about their leadership mindset and skills.

Rather than addressing his arguments point-by-point, I’d like to offer several observations about leadership and leadership education. First, despite what McDonald claims, there has been emerging consensus over the past two decades on what constitutes leadership and leadership effectiveness. There are several excellent and well-researched books on leadership that summarize these findings, including Leadership in Organizations by social scientist Gary Yukl (2010). Although there are indeed many definitions of leadership, almost all organizational psychologists would agree with Yukl’s conclusion that “most definitions share the assumption that (leadership) involves an influence process concerned with facilitating the performance of a collective task.” (p. 23), and that this influence is for a direction (some would say “vision” or “point of view”) that the leader has in mind. He then summarizes ten behaviors of effective leaders, based on the overwhelming research evidence to date. I’ve included these below, along with the eight behaviors of effective managers that Google identified recently based on the extensive data they collected internally on what differentiates effective from average managers (Garvin, 2013). There is a strong overlap in these two lists (as well as several others that have emerged in the literature). Furthermore, most social scientists agree that leadership can be defined as a set of behaviors that can be learned and practiced (e.g., Kouzes and Posner, 2007) and that effective leadership does lead to better engagement, motivation, and performance. In other words, good leaders do make a difference not only to the individuals but also to their teams, their organizations, and to their communities and societies.

Second, contrary to what McDonald asserts, the great majority of contemporary research and practice on leadership stresses the importance of collaborative versus authoritarian leadership. The Jack Welches of the world are still around but they are a minority among executives today. I remember reading in an interview a few years ago when Jeff Immelt, Welch’s successor and current CEO of GE, commented that if he had to give a direct order more than five times a year, he felt he was not being an effective leader. In fact, there is no respectable social scientist today who would argue that leadership is synonymous with hierarchy, formal authority, or a command-and-control view. Perhaps the best contemporary examples of this collaborative approach to leadership development are coming not from the corporate world but from the military, and specifically West Point. From conversations, I have had with faculty and students there, as well as books by and interviews with West Point graduates (just as one example, former general Stanley McChrystal wrote a book recently on shared power and leadership and has a successful consulting practice helping companies), their approach to leadership as collaborative and as a set of behaviors that can be learned is consistent with the evidence from social science research.

Of course, there are still many executives today who view leadership as a raw grab for power and exercise of authority. These are reflected in the comments from some of my students, and there are many examples of these ego-driven and narcissistic types in organizations today. But for the most part, managers, as well as senior executives in different types of organizations, recognize that they need a different kind of leadership these days to be effective.

In summary: 1) leaders are both born and made; in other words, while some may have traits that help them to become leaders, many of us can build and improve on our leadership skills; 2) leadership can be exercised at many levels of an organization, and is not dependent solely on power or status; 3) those with collaborative skills and concern for others (along with technical skills and the right kinds of experiences) tend to become more effective leaders in the long run, 4) for many, becoming a leader is more of a process rather than a single act or decision that defines them as a leader, with self-awareness being a critical aspect of this journey, and 5) learning from experience and from others (such as role models) can greatly influence one’s growth and development as a leader. Many years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he was still a bodybuilder, used to tell his fans that they were never going to build up their bodies simply by reading his books and watching his videos (of which he had quite a few). You had to go and actually exercise and practice. The best approaches to leadership education today focus on those critical behaviors constituting leadership and provide students with the knowledge and skills to practice and improve their effectiveness as leaders in the context of their specific situation.

What Effective Leaders Do (Yukl)

  • Help interpret the meaning of events
  • Create alignment on objectives and strategies
  • Build task commitment and optimism
  • Build mutual trust and cooperation
  • Strengthen collective identity
  • Organize and coordinate activities
  • Encourage and facilitate collective learning
  • Obtain necessary resources and support
  • Develop and empower people
  • Promote social justice and morality

What an Effective Leader Does (Google)

  • Is a good coach
  • Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  • Expresses an interest in and concern for the team members’ success and personal well-being
  • Is productive and results-oriented
  • Is a good communicator—listens and shares information
  • Helps with career development
  • Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
  • Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team


Garvin, D. (2013). How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management. Harvard Business Review, December.

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2007). The Leadership Challenge. New York: Wiley.

McDonald, D. (2017). The Golden Passport. New York: HarperCollins.

Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.