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Finally, time to discard the outdated idea that all business schools care about are students with hard skills in subjects such as math, economics, and computer science.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.     


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