Do MBA Programs Fail to Produce Leaders?

October 6, 2011 · Leave a Comment 

Today there are over 150,000 MBA graduates annually; seemingly prepped and primped for the life beyond the classroom. However, upon closer expectation of the curriculum and mindset of the business graduate school, one comes across a shaky foundation of skills that may be both too specialized and rigid for true success as leaders.

Despite a Changing Rhetoric, the Business School Fails to Change

There is a fundamental balancing act that business schools must grapple with; which sways between preparing practitioners of the field and increasing knowledge through research. Today’s current business school system has fallen out of balance and overemphasizes the latter rather than the former. This issue was brought to light in the mid-2000’s, and there was calls of change and re-emphasis on preparing practitioners. However, despite changing rhetoric and a re-vamping of the business school’s image as a veritable fountain of leadership creation, more often than not there was little change in the core curriculum, and the graduates languished in the real-world issues they were not prepared for in school.

Break It Down: Three Core, Unavoidable Issues

To break it down, MBA programs don’t produce leaders for three reasons. One being the fact that the students focus too much on hard facts at the cost of the “soft” skills of general management and understanding people. There, analytics and technical skills become the locus of all learning. However, as writer on the topic Drew Hansen puts it, “businesses are simply organizations of human beings with a shared, profit-driven mission.” If you take people out of the equation – well, all you’re left with is a bunch of numbers.

Second, leaders also see things holistically, but MBA students are taught in discrete, specialized parts. They don’t know how to deal with “the messy stuff – the intractable problems,” and “the complicated connections,” as Henry Mintzberg, author of Managers, not M.B.A.s, puts it. Business leaders have to consider multiple business functions and issues and come to a single, cohesive conclusion and vision.

Finally, leaders are best at execution, not strategy. MBA students are taught strategy, but lack much experience in execution, which is where ultimately it counts the most. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford, uses the example, “Doing the right thing is important, which is where strategy comes in. But doing that thing well – execution – is what sets companies apart… success depends on execution – on the ability to get things done.”

It Has to be in Context

MBA programs are certainly useful for many things, however, with an approach so incongruous and at times conflicting with real-world issues, its place and usefulness must be put into context. Hansen manages to sum up the problem in a single phrase, “Leaders are created in the crucible of life, not a classroom.”

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