Posted by: Yuval D Bar-Or on Jan 05, 2009
For decades, the nation's leading MBA schools boasted about their contributions to the country's management ranks and overall prosperity. Their typical modus operandi had been to attract ambitious young men and women, immerse them in studies of finance, accounting, marketing, and the like, and then funnel them into jobs in consulting and investment banking. As these graduates prospered, and gratefully pledged millions to their alma maters, there was a sense of satisfaction with a job well done, and a perception that the desired cycle was in balance: producing ‘leaders,' reaping financial rewards from them, and having them interview and recommend the next cycle of incoming students, in a self-reinforcing pattern.
In the wake of setbacks, such as the Enron debacle, business schools engaged in a debate over whether they should be responsible for preaching or teaching morality. As a result, many programs introduced ethics content into the curriculum.
The addition of an ethics course, however, may be viewed as applying a band-aid to a superficial symptom. As we now know, the patient was not suffering from a superficial skin ailment. Rather, the patient's ailments included widespread weaknesses in the skeletal, neurological and circulatory systems. More specifically, graduates of schools of business and management suffered from weak or non-existent backbones, inability or disinclination to use their brains, and many were found to be heartless. In modern medical terms this is a condition known as leadership deficiency syndrome (LDS). As we now know, this condition is contagious and deadly.
The economic damage we are struggling with now was not caused by a random meteor strike. It was not caused by the failure of quantitative models. It was not caused by a tiny cadre of powerful businessmen and politicians, as conspiracy theorists preach. It was caused systematically by a distinct lack of leadership by tens of thousands of captains and lieutenants of industry, including employees and managers of industrial corporations, members of the financial community, regulators, and the consultants who were sworn to serve all of them faithfully. The combined greed, recklessness, and ineptitude of these individuals, tolerated over many years, led us to the edge and ultimately over it.
What we've learned the hard way is that filling Wall Street's needs for investment bankers cannot be the ultimate calling of a school of management, and especially those claiming to produce the leaders of tomorrow - no one would mistake today's investment banker for a leader. If MBA schools still believe they should be producing tomorrow's leaders, they must take the responsibility seriously and produce the product that is needed, not the ones that are most glamorous, and not those most likely to donate large sums as wealthy alumni.
The answer lies in recognition that the less glamorous courses offered by schools of management, such as leadership, human resources and organizational behavior, are those that should be emphasized, and approached in the most scientific and collaborative of manners.
As stated by Warren Bennis, a leading authority on leadership research in the introduction to the American Psychologist's Special Issue on Leadership, January 2007, "although we do not yet know what a theory of leadership would look like, we do know it will be interdisciplinary, a collaboration among cognitive scientists, social psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, biologists, ethicists, political scientists, historians, sociobiologists, and others."
Fittingly, these comments are preceded one page earlier by, "leadership is always, in some sense, a matter of values."
Thus, instead of feeding Wall Street's need for bodies - we've all seen how successful that focus was - business schools must turn their attention to leadership development, and emerging concepts such as Wisdom and Humility, both considered pillars of the latest leadership theories.
The recent upheaval provides an historic opportunity for real change. In the past, breaking the cycle of catering to investment banks and consulting firms would have been unthinkable for business schools heavily dependent on prestigious high paying jobs to maintain student applications and alumni donations. But now the demand for these traditional roles has been crushed, yielding a unique opportunity to make drastic changes in the way our society produces leaders. In fact, in the way our society defines leaders.
Leaders are those who stand against the crowd, who don't conform with the herd when its objectives and methods conflict with reason and community values. Leaders speak out and urge others to abandon destructive paths. Leaders put a stop to rot and disease, rather than propagating their own, and infecting others. If business schools are truly committed to leadership development, they must first show an inclination and ability to cure Leadership Deficiency Syndrome within their own student populations.