Leadership Is The Most Important Skill That You Will Learn On An MBA

The key to understanding and appreciating the statement above is to ask the question, “What is the purpose of an MBA.” There will, naturally, be many conflicting ideas and responses as each MBA is geared towards a different industry and has a different target demographic. Many MBAs claim in their mission statement to be training the ‘business leaders of the future’ and a reasonable claim to the purpose of an MBA might be that it is a process for training the CEOs and entrepreneurs of the future. This shouldn’t be too controversial as everybody who does an MBA tends to hope to either work within the senior management of a company or to start their own company.

In order to be recognised as an MBA (and to be accredited by AMBA) a business school will be required to jump through a number of ‘hoops’ and to demonstrate that it is teaching a series of core modules that all business leaders might be expected to have some knowledge of. These range from economics and accounting through to operations and marketing. Each MBA will teach them slightly differently and there will, therefore, be a broad spectrum of levels of competence in each modular area from MBA alumni. In reality it is perfectly possible to be a very capable CEO or to start your own successful company without a strong comprehension of one or more of these core modules. The head of an IT company might not be an expert in marketing and the founder of a logistics provider might not be the worlds’ authority on economics. There will be the expectation, however, that a basic understanding of each area will have been reached.

There is one core competency that all senior managers and business founders must be able to demonstrate and this is leadership. Leadership is one of those intangible and personal skills which many people have without realising it and far more lack while pretending to display it. It is harder to teach than any of the other core competencies but it is the only one that all senior managers will need to have in their arsenal at all times when running a business. Without leadership you will always have a glass ceiling above you because the top jobs in an industry will not be appropriate for you. If you do manage to reach these top jobs and you are incapable of sound leadership then the company will suffer and, eventually, the house of cards will come tumbling down around you.

It is often claimed that the path to success is a constant journey. This statement could easily be altered to read that the path to being a capable leader is a constant journey. There are no examples in any walk of life of the perfect leader but there are many leaders who recognise this and constantly strive to improve their leadership approach and technique. One of the best places to do this is on an MBA but it is surprising how often it is approached as an ancillary subject rather than a core competency. There are a number of ways to perfect leadership training which MBA courses could and should adopt if they are truly committed to producing the business leaders of the future. A couple of these for consideration are:

Leadership is a skill that must be taught by leaders. As an MBA student you would be uncomfortable being taught marketing by someone who had never marketed a product or being taught economics by anyone other than an economist. This should be the same principle for leadership. A leadership professor must have a background in leading teams through a range of scenarios and situations, both fast paced and procedural. It is only through this experience and knowledge that they will be able to pass onto the students the knowledge of what true leadership is. Many skills can be learnt from textbooks, TED talks and journal articles; leadership is not one of them. A great number of MBA lecturers come from a solid and successful career in industry where they have faced leadership challenges on a frequent basis. This is a gold mine which should be exploited.

Leadership is a practical skill which cannot be learnt purely in the classroom. There are enough text books and publications on leadership to occupy an entire land-fill site and, for the majority of them, that is where they belong. Leadership is not a theory and shouldn’t be taught as one. The famous statesman Otto Von Bismarck said that “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” Never has this been truer than in the field of leadership. An MBA course should bring in CEOs, business founders, chairmen, doctors, executives and even military officers to talk about their own personal leadership experiences. There is no point in just sitting in a classroom and looking at slides which attempt to describe the concept of an ‘authentic leader’. The true benefit comes from hearing where others have succeeded and, more importantly, where they have failed. No two leadership situations will ever be the same but by experiencing the path that others have walked before you, through their own words, you can limit the mistakes that you might make on your own personal leadership journey.

If leadership were approached with these two principles in mind then students would graduate with a much better understanding of the challenges that lie ahead of them when in a senior management position. There are also some key principles to effective leadership which should always be considered by each and every budding leader:

Self Belief. If a leader doesn’t believe in himself or in his own abilities then he will never be able to inspire others to follow his decisions. Belief in ones’ self is one of the most vital traits that a leader can have. Through hesitation and doubt many excellent plans have been implemented poorly as these feelings will be passed infectiously to the colleagues and subordinates of the leader.

Trust. Leadership is about nothing if it is not about trusting the people beneath you in an organisation and the leaders who sit above you (perhaps at board level). This can be extended to include delegation as well as just trust. In a large, or even a medium sized organisation, leaders cannot be expected to carry out all of the tasks within their brief single handedly. If they could then there would be no requirement for them to be leaders and they could just be workers. It is only through trusting your workforce and delegating tasks to them in an appropriate and considerate manner that a leader can achieve their highest potential and the highest potential of their workforce. Leaders who micromanage or refuse to delegate will drown in their workload and find themselves surrounded by underemployed, disenfranchised workers who could have saved them if they’d only asked.

Communication. You cannot lead people if they do not have a clear and concise understanding of what your aims and intentions are. Through strong communication channels a leader will not only be able to recognise when there is a problem with one of their subordinates but they will also be able to ensure that their colleagues know exactly what they expect from them at all times. When truly great leaders achieve a harmonious communications channel with their team then they are able to act collectively and achieve greater goals than they would ever have been able to as the sum of their parts.

In conclusion it is undeniably the case that business people who understand, practice and implement strong leadership skills will go on to be more effective and more successful in their careers. This is an area which appears often to be overlooked on MBAs because the ‘learning is in the doing’ and this can be hard to implement on tight budgets and constrained resources. This does not mean that leadership theory has no value. The theories and academic research that have been conducted on leadership can lay the foundations, guide the leader and bolster their decisions when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. The key message to this paper however is that the practical education is vital, even without the theory, but the theory without the practice is a waste of an MBA student’s time.

There have been many great managers of people who do not understand economics, accounting, marketing, operations, finance or strategy. There has never been a great manager who was incapable of leading the people under them.

Of course there are other qualities, methods and styles to both teaching and practicing strong leadership. Some of these will complement the ideas laid out above and some of them will contradict. I would welcome any further thoughts on leadership in the comments section below.

  • Merlin

    Interesting article about leadership.

    Few points came to my mind about leadership:

    1. Understanding yourself as a leader. The more you understand yourself the better you will be able to lead others. The journey in understanding yourself start with reflecting at the past events or challenges you faced with in the past and how you responded. Identify events that have changed your perceptions about life. Knowing your passion, what drives energy out of you.

    2. Every leader has a vision. What tools are needed to achieve the vision e.g. acquiring MBA skills and knowledge. Putting a team together to work towards achieving a vision. Energise your team to embrace the vision.

    Xolani Nocanda  

  • Great article on leadership. I will link communication to feedback as one of the qualities of leadership. In leading team, it is good to give feedback (both positive and negative). The positives will motivate the subordinates to do more and accept the criticism put forward by the leader. in some cases some leaders only concentrate on the weakness and ignore the strength of the individual. Such practice result in subordinates lacking self-confidence and resulting in low performance.

    Alfred Edward Demby

  •                   In all my years of work, the one thing that I realised was that leader cannot be made but is born. I have my reasons for this:

                      The initiative and drive is something that comes from the soul. You cannot teach it. An opportunist is not a leader but one who takes advantage of the position he's in. Most people confuse an opportunist with a leader. An opportunist is found out while a leader sails through in tough situations.

                       You can have all the skills that a MBA would provide but the initiative,drive and passion I believe is non-negotiable.

  • Hi Rejeev,

    I'm afraid that I have to disagree with your comment.  I suppose the (slightly altered) saying that would best sum it up would be that:

    "Some are born to lead, some attain leadership and some have leadership thrust upon them."

    You are right that many great leaders are born with the talents and ability to lead people and, regardless of how they start out in life, will always end up leading those around them.  A far greater number of leaders learn and constantly work to develop the skills of leadership and still end up as very capable and inspirational leaders.  I have seen many people start with little or no leadership ability or drive and, over the years, grow into terrific leaders who are respected and followed by capable and motivated teams.

    I would welcome your thoughts on this.