Learning to Lead – in an MBA Program

Several times a year the Financial Times ranks different types of programs that provide a business education. Recently it published its most recent MBA rankings in FT Business Education: Global MBA Ranking 2019. *

Most people look for the rankings themselves, though they tend to contain few surprises, and these generally are small. For example, Stanford Graduate School of Business ranks first this year, as it did last. Harvard Business School moved up several slots, from 5th place to 2nd, while Instead slipped from 2nd to 3rd and Wharton from 3rd to 4th. Notably, CEIBS (China Europe International Business School), based in Shanghai, rose from 8th place to 5th, putting it securely in the top tier of business schools worldwide. (This is the first time in CEIBS’s history that it has two programs in the top five; its EMBA program is also ranked 5th in the world.)

While the rankings may be their major attraction, each of these FT publications contains other nuggets for those of us with an interest in how top business schools teach top students how to lead. In 2019 three themes stand out.

First is a strong emphasis on change – not only in business schools but in those, such as the FT, making assessments about what business schools should aim to accomplish. One such shift is away from the laser-like focus on money (“how much do graduates earn?”) to a broader conception of the public good, one that includes the needs of the “wider society.”

Second is a rethinking of the curriculum. There seems finally to be a greater understanding of the importance of context – specifically the idea that it is impossible to separate business from politics. As one professor from Oxford’s Said Business School put it, “Geopolitics are becoming more and more important, both in the western and emerging market spheres.” This explains, he adds, why “students are feeling a need” to learn to “navigate” the political waters.

Finally, time to discard the outdated idea that all business schools care about are students with hard skills in subjects such as math, economics, and computer science. This is not to say that hard skills don’t count; rather it is to point out that soft skills increasingly do as well. At the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth prospective students are expected to demonstrate their “niceness.” The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business places an emphasis on how incoming students will “interact” and “communicate.” And applicants to the Yale School of Management are asked to subject their soft skills to a “behavioral assessment…administered by the Educational Testing Service.”

What do these changes tell us about learning how to lead in top tier business schools worldwide? That no one – no individual or institution – has it nailed. Which is precisely why what MBA programs look for when they admit students, and what they do with these students once they get there, remains regularly in flux.

Some flux is necessary – things change. But other flux is not. There are or there should be some components of a leadership curriculum that are evergreen.     

*FT.COM/MBA

Bad Leader Danger

Really bad leaders can do really bad things. Really bad followers can do the same. Really bad followers can enable really bad leaders to do really bad things.

Adolf Hitler is an historical example. If he was going to lose the war and be pushed from power, he would have Germany lie in ruins. His followers went along – they aided and abetted his destruction of their country.

Bashar al-Assad is a contemporaneous example. If he was going to lose control and be pushed from power, he would have Syria lie in ruins. His followers went along – they aided and abetted his destruction of their country.  

Any potential parallels come to mind?   

Learning to Lead in Cyberworld

At another moment in time this would’ve been a big story. But, at this moment in time, it’s gotten buried in all the other ostensibly even bigger stories. Still, it’s a big deal. It’s so big a deal that attention must be paid.

Two days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article with this headline: “Chinese Hackers Attack U. S. Navy, Report Says.” Well, I thought, so what else is new? Yet another story about how China got the better of America in cyberspace.

Turns out the item was not in the least routine. Turns out the Navy and its industry partners have been “under cyber siege” by the Chinese, with consequences that threatened, according to the Navy itself, the U. S. standing as the world’s preeminent military power.

How could this have happened? How could one of America’s armed services be, apparently, so woefully underdefended against an attack that frequently was foretold?

I have no claim whatsoever to military expertise. And I have no claim whatsoever to technological expertise. But I do have some claim to leadership expertise. To expertise in how to educate, train, and develop leaders. Here then is what struck me.  The Navy’s own review of what happened is “especially scathing in its assessment of how it addressed cybersecurity challenges.” Naval officials “were faulted for failing to anticipate that adversaries would attack the defense industrial base and not adequately informing those partners of the cyber threat.” (Italics mine.) In other words, in my words, naval leaders are still learning the old-fashioned way. They are still being taught to focus too much on themselves, and too little on everyone else and everything else. In the third decade of the twenty first century this antiquated approach to learning to lead has got to change – lest Americans continue to be played for suckers.

Trump’s Followers

Everyone familiar with the leadership literature knows that, overwhelmingly, it’s about leaders not followers. Even now, when to people like me it’s screamingly obvious that followers matter as much as leaders, leadership experts continue to focus laser-like on those at the top. Those in the middle and at the bottom are still largely ignored.

The few among us who do study followers tend to divide them into groups. Why? Because followers are like leaders. They are different one from the other, so thinking of them as one, as a single clump, makes scant sense. The capacity to distinguish among followers is of considerable urgency now, during the presidency of Donald Trump, when on the one hand large numbers of Americans see him as a dangerous would-be dictator, while on the other hand large numbers of Americans see him as a splendid specimen of a politician, well suited to be chief executive.

Let’s be clear here: even in the immediate wake of Michael Cohen’s explosive testimony against him, President Trump’s approval ratings did not drop. They stayed essentially the same: 45% of Americans still approve of the way he is doing his job. While this seems baffling and even frightening to many other Americans, all of us should be clear eyed. Trump’s followers remain remarkably, even stunningly, loyal – however badly he behaves in the present and however badly he behaved in the past. So far at least, none of it makes much of a difference.

Who exactly are Trump’s followers? Who exactly follows a leader who, whatever his assets and deficits, manifestly lies and cheats and steals? Who exactly are those among us who approve of a chief executive whose character is so deeply flawed, and whose commitment to the rule of law is so manifestly tenuous?

For the purpose of this discussion I divide Trump’s followers into just two groups. The first consists of those who have concluded that it’s in their interest to remain in a relationship with Trump best described as transactional. Transactional relationships involve an exchange of some sort, in which leaders and followers trade favors, implicit or explicit, on the assumption that both sides stand to benefit. During the time of Trump, the clearest examples of this are those of his followers who believe most strongly in the Republican agenda, for example, in nominating strict conservatives to the supreme court. In this group are also congressional Republicans. No doubt some are true believers – they think Trump is terrific. But, no doubt others are not true believers. They do not think Trump is terrific. Still, they feel it’s in their political interest to pretend – to pretend they strongly support the president because doing so will enhance their chance of being reelected.  

Again, for the purpose of this essay I’ll set this first group of followers aside and turn to the second. To those followers who really are true believers – who are nuts about Trump, who greatly admire him, and who remain in the thrall of this leader in particular. I refer, for example, to those who attended last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in part to hear the president speak.

Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, described the president’s inordinately long (over two hours) CPAC speech as “rambling and incoherent.” The president, Robinson wrote “raved like a lunatic and told crazy, self-serving lies from start to finish.” Robinson, a reasonable centrist, was, obviously, appalled by what he witnessed – less perhaps by Trump than by Trump’s reception. As CNN later described it, the president “did not disappoint.” The crowd hung on his every word, cheered his every trope, and throughout was “wildly enthusiastic.” At CPAC in any case, Trump’s minions could not get enough of the man they came to adore – their leader.

What’s going on here? Why are so many ordinary Americans – who presumably teach their children to be good people – so taken with a man who violates the most fundamental of American norms? Norms such as integrity, decency, empathy. Reasons have been given aplenty. We know by now some of the demographics that pertain – I need not repeat them here. Moreover we know by now that Trump is a bad ass – he is our national id; he is our collective bad boy; he dares to misbehave in ways the rest of us would never dare to. Ironically, these are his attractions. His miserable manners. His flouting of the rule of law. His deliberate disassociations from principles with which America has been associated since the beginning of the Republic.

So that which strongly repels some of us, strongly attracts others of us. Attracts some of us Americans with a pull so magnetic, so hypnotic, that they and Trump have forged that rare thing – a genuinely charismatic relationship.

The word “charisma” has long been bandied about rather freely. Celebrities are easily described as having charisma.  Leaders are easily described as having charisma. And people to whom we are especially attracted are easily described as having charisma. But, in its earliest incarnation, the word “charisma” had a special meaning. Originally it was an ancient Greek word meaning “gift” – a gift from the Gods. “Powers that could not be explained by ordinary means were called charismata.” Later the term was picked up by the Christian church to describe talents such as prophecy, wisdom, and healing that were “believed to have been bestowed by God.” And, still later, it was picked up by and ultimately popularized by the renowned German sociologist Max Weber, who conceived of charisma as one among three sources of authority. Weber also thought charisma rare, a singular quality that set a few men (yes, men) apart from everyone else, enabling them to be seen as “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least… exceptional powers and qualities.”*

Charisma then, real charisma, is exceptional, unusual, infrequent. It is extra-ordinary. More to my point, though, is charismatic leadership. It too is exceptional, unusual, infrequent. It too is extra-ordinary. Charismatic leadership is not so much about the leader, or for that matter about the followers. Rather it is about the relationship between them. It is the relationship that is key – the relationship is all. According to political scientist Ann Ruth Willner, charismatic leadership is a relationship between a leader and a group of followers that has the following properties:

  1. The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow extraordinary, special, sometimes even superhuman.
  2. The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements or seem to – no matter how outrageous or obviously false.    
  3. The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
  4. The followers give the leader unqualified emotional commitment.**

Clearly the one does not exist without the other: leaders do not exist without their followers. More specifically, charismatic leaders cannot exist without their followers. Similarly, followers of charismatic leaders are deeply dependent on them – such followers rely on their leaders not only to provide direction, but to make meaning. Charismatic leadership is characterized above all by the symbiotic relationship – the intensely dependent and interdependent relationship between leaders and their followers.

Trump and his diehard followers fall into this category. They are an example of charismatic leadership and, if you will, charismatic followership. This explains why Trump loves nothing so much as to appear before large crowds of his fierce, fervent, and fevered devotees. And, this explains why those of us who are other than his fierce, fervent, and fevered devotees will continue to be deeply disappointed. For no new information, no Truth with a capital T, will ever change the minds of those who rank among the president’s most ardent disciples. The thing to bear in mind between now and the next presidential election is that relationships between charismatic leaders and their followers never break of their own accord. They crack only when the context within which they are situated compels them to do so.

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*The quotes in this paragraph are from Jay Conger, The Charismatic Leader (Jossey-Bass, 1989).  

**These points are based on Willner’s book, The Spellbinders (Yale University Press, 1984).

Bad Leaders, Bad Managers, Bad Bosses

Unless you believe that more than two dozen former staff members of Senator Amy Klobuchar made things up out of whole cloth and, or, unless you believe that many if not most of these people have a vendetta against superiors who are females, working for Senator Klobuchar is at best high stress. She appears a classic case of a “bad boss.”

Go online and you’ll see a gazillion entries on the subject, many of them checklists of what bad bosses typically do: they publicly criticize, they don’t listen, they are quick to get angry, they are ungrateful, they are unsupportive, they lack empathy, they micromanage, they disrespect, and they have little or no self-awareness. Sadly – for she seems otherwise a smart, sensible centrist – Klobuchar fits the bill. To all appearances she is a “petty tyrant.”  

Petty tyrants drive me nuts. There’s no excuse for them, none. Their realms generally are small not large. Their grievances generally are small not large. And the stakes generally are small not large. At the same time the harm that superiors can inflict on their subordinates sometimes is considerable. In 2015 Gallup found that more than half of those who quit their jobs did so on account of a bad boss. A healthy response, as bad bosses can cause all sorts of damage, from garden variety workplace misery to clinical depression to ulcers and high blood pressure.    

Why would anyone behave this way toward anyone else? Why would anyone be disdainful and dictatorial when it’s cheap to be nice? Real cheap. Cheap and easy.

I believe at least some of the charges against Senator Klobuchar are true. So there’s no chance she’ll get my support. I further believe that teaching leadership and management should be – above all – about preaching common human decency toward everyone/anyone, no matter their status or station  

Amazon Amateurs

Let’s say for the sake of this discussion that Amazon’s plan to expand to New York City in a Big Way was a good thing. Good for the city generally, and good for the residents of Queens (the borough where Amazon was to locate) specifically. Clearly, this was the strongly held belief of New York State’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo. Just as clearly, it was the strongly held belief of New York City’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio. The two men happen to agree on very little – and there’s plenty of evidence that they don’t much like each other. But on this issue, they were in strong accord. Notwithstanding the costs incurred, Amazon’s bringing 25,000 jobs to the Big Apple was certain to bring enormous benefits. It was a major coup both for the state and for the city.

Turned out that New York’s political leaders were every bit as surprised as Amazon’s corporate leaders when, instead of every New Yorker dancing in the streets when the news was announced, many were furious. Furious at the billions of dollars of tax incentives that Amazon had been promised. Furious at the disruption and gentrification that they were persuaded threatened their way of life. Furious above all that the deal had been reached without any of their input – without them even knowing what was going on. By the time New Yorkers found out what transpired it was too late. Case closed. Fait accompli. Done deal. “You don’t like it? Suck it up.”

Amazon’s leaders have been faulted for being too thin-skinned. Too hasty in their decision to quit the city as soon as the going got a little bit rough. But, what do they know? They’re based in Seattle. Seattle is not New York. And the people of Seattle are not like the people of New York. New Yorkers are demanding and demonstrative, purposeful and pushy, aggressive and action-oriented. Enough of them were enough angry at having been excluded from the decision-making, that they threatened seriously to derail or at least seriously slow the entire process. And so, Amazon’s leaders picked up their marbles and went home.

Assuming you supported the Amazon plan, its collapse was a bad outcome, with enough blame to go around. But the buck stops at the top. It is Cuomo and de Blasio who should have known better. It is these leaders who should have cultivated their followers, their fellow New Yorkers. Had they been paid greater attention, they could certainly have been convinced that whatever the downsides of Amazon’s planned expansion, the upsides far outweighed them.   

The Normalization of Followership

When my book Followership was originally published, in 2008, the word, “followership,” was almost unheard of. So rarely was it used that when I typed it into my computer a red underline promptly appeared, signaling a misspelling. Though “followership” remains rather an uncommon conception, those days are over. My computer is fine with “followership,” recognizing that at least it’s entered the lexicon.    

What’s remarkable these days is that despite followers increasingly frequently driving the action – the dynamic between leaders and followers has changed, permanently – our fixation on leadership remains. Look around you and you’ll see what I mean. In every liberal democracy – that is, everywhere followers are not oppressed and suppressed – often as not it is followers who are leading and leaders who are following.

I define followers as people without obvious sources of power, authority, or influence. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – “yellow vests” – have changed the politics of France. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – British voters – have driven Great Britain to the precipice of Brexit. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – Catholic laity – have forced the Vatican to cope with the crisis of priestly abuse. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – residents of New York City – have forced Amazon to retreat from its plan to build in Queens. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – Venezuelans – have marched by the tens of thousands to push from his perch President Nicolas Maduro.

I could go on. But the point’s been made. How is it possible at this moment in time to fixate on leadership to the exclusion of followership? It’s not – the importance of followers is screamingly obvious. Followership has been normalized.   

What’s the Difference Between “Leadership” and “Management”?

The question dates back decades.  In a 1977 article in the Harvard Business Review, leadership expert Abraham Zaleznik argued that whereas managers were supposed to focus on competence and control, leaders were expected to enlighten and inspire. * Not many years later, another leadership expert, Warren Bennis, sounded a similar theme – one that similarly depicted the manager as a bit of a hack and the leader a creature of a higher order. For example, in Bennis’s lexicon the manager was an administrator, the leader an innovator; the manager was a copy, the leader an original. You get the idea.   

Since then, the distinctions between the words “leader” and “manager” have remained frustratingly opaque. Well into the 21st century we are still failing in the main to define “leadership” and “management.” We are still neglecting in the main to distinguish between them. And we are still continuing in the main to use them interchangeably. It’s embarrassing, really, that in corporate America and even in business and professional schools, we still use the words as if they were synonymous, as if leaders and managers were one and the same.

In my most recent book, Professionalizing Leadership, I railed against this, concluding that “most institutions and organizations have simply thrown in the towel on this one.” They don’t “take the time or the trouble to define the two words, or to distinguish between them, or to use them in ways that are clear and consistent.” Among my several concerns was the leadership industry confusing precisely those clients and students to whom, ostensibly, we provide a service. Hence, I argued, “this has to stop.”   

This is not a problem requiring a rocket scientist. The way to distinguish between leadership and management is to declare once and for all that, by definition, the former implies a service component while the latter does not. In other words, ethics plays a part. There should be no leadership education, training, or development that does not require a demonstrable commitment to serving others.  

Even in the year since Professionalizing Leadership was published my argument has acquired a newfound resonance.  The reason is the question “what is the purpose of business?” has recently been revisited.  For many years, corporate America has been perfectly satisfied to buy into the proposition (propagated by Milton Friedman) that for a company to pursue anything other than (legal) profit was “pure and unadulterated socialism.” More recently, though, the idea that business has but a single objective has come into question. Why? Precisely because it omits from its calculus the welfare of everyone else – of everyone other than the shareholder. As Andrew Edgecliffe Johnson recently wrote in the Financial Times, “Challenges to Friedman’s model have been gathering momentum. Now…they are starting to converge into something that looks like a new world view, shared by leading executives and investors and shaped by an unlikely alliance of consumers, employees, campaigners, academics and regulators. Together they would …offer a new model for capitalism based on the watchwords of purpose, inclusion and sustainability.” **

The point is that inclusion and redistribution are ideas whose time has come. Which explains why big business is starting, slowly, to pay attention. High time then for the leadership industry to do the same. To recapture the idealism originally associated with “leadership” – and to distinguish it from “management” by tying the former forevermore to service.

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*“Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” in Harvard Business Review, January 1977.  HBR reprinted the article in 2004.

** “Beyond the Bottom Line,” FT, January 5, 6, 2019.  

The Leadership Show

You a theatergoer? You like your histrionics dramatic? Comedic? You into carefully crafted staging, precisely designed costuming, maybe a large cast proudly preening before an audience of millions? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, do I have a show for you!

To call last night’s State of the Union occasion kabuki is pushing it. But it’s not too much to say that it was much more about style than substance, much more about medium than message. Every single actor had a part to perform and was hellbent on playing it to the hilt. Every single actor knew that while the moment felt important the evening would soon be forgotten. And every single actor knew that while the spotlight was on the star of the show – whose speech was of course scripted by wordsmiths other than he – behind the scenes were drumbeats. Drumbeats signaling from, for example, the House and Senate, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s Southern District, courtrooms in Washington, New York, and Virginia. Drumbeats signaling that this State of the Union was dramatically different from nearly all which preceded it, and that to normalize it was to betray American fealty to divided government and the rule of law.    

How Change is Created

A few days after posting my most recent blog, on Colin Kaepernick (“The Last Shall be First”), was, coincidentally, an interview in the Harvard Gazette on why civil resistance works. (Link below.) The interview was with Professor Erica Chenoweth, who has long studied the question of why nonviolence is more effective a strategy of change than violence.

Chenoweth named four elements key to a successful nonviolent campaign:

  1. Participation that is large and diverse. Kaepernick? Check.
  2. Some elites who are supportive at least some of the time. Kaepernick? Check.
  3. Variation in the methods of protest. Kaepernick? Check.
  4. Resistance that stays sturdy and sustained. Kaepernick? Check.

The success of Kaepernick’s protest is not a slam dunk. But the silence of his gesture continues to ring in our ears. His protest continues to hover over football. And his supporters continue to remain as steadfast as furious. For all the Super Bowl hoopla, many Americans refused to watch, such as film director Ava DuVernay, who accused the National Football League of “racist treatment” of Kaepernick.  

Stay tuned. Football season is over. But this story is not.