Reconceiving Teaching Leading

On the issue of learning to lead I recently wrote a book, Professionalizing Leadership (Oxford University Press, 2018). The book made essentially two arguments: first, that how we teach how to lead is woefully deficient; and second, that there is a better way, specifically that students of leadership should, like students of medicine and law, be professionally educated, trained, and developed.

Since the book was published things happened – some particularly pertinent. One was a still further decline in M.B.A applications, especially to traditional two-year programs. The other was the corona virus crisis that laid bare the deficiencies in how we prepare people to lead, notably but not only when times are tough.       

About the decline in traditional M.B.A applications there is little to be said that is new, other than that the trend has not only accelerated but is unlikely now ever to be reversed. Signs of a shift are all around, and they abound. In January of this year the Financial Times reported that, “Business school deans warn of a crisis threatening the future of the two-year generalist degree. It comes after four straight years of declining applications at most US institutions.” In April of this year the Wall Street Journal quoted a business school dean who observed that, “When you get to the point where Harvard has declining applicants, you know the two-year M.B.A. is in trouble.”   

To address the issue business school deans – especially deans of schools that are other than top tier – have taken several different paths. Some schools have shortened their programs of study, that is, they have shifted from two-year M.B.A. programs to one-year programs. In fact, the number of one-year accredited M.B.A. programs surged fully 250 per cent since 2012. Other schools have started to specialize. Johns Hopkins Carey Business School is a good example. Starting next fall, the University’s traditional two-year M.B. A. program will build on Hopkins’s already existing strong medical, nursing, and public health schools by concentrating on health. (This decision seems now to have been as prescient as fortuitous, given it was made before the pandemic.) And still other schools adapted to the marketplace by offering part-time programs, flex-time programs, and, of course, online programs.         

About the corona virus crisis there is similarly little to be said that is new, in this case not because it’s been said for years but rather because it’s been said countless, numberless, untold numbers of times in the last couple of months. Our leaders – I’ll confine my comments to leaders in the U.S., though they are hardly the only ones culpable – have not been up to the job. The most obvious example is our political leadership class because they are the most visible. But the same can also be said about leaders in business, and for that matter about leaders in science and medicine who, if they did foresee a crisis of this sort, were clearly ineffective in communicating their sense of alarm. Additionally, leaders not only failed miserably to prepare for this crisis, they failed miserably to manage it. As I write, it seems to be agreed that opening the economy safely and successfully without widespread testing is impossible. It seems similarly to be agreed that our capacity to do such widespread testing is, at least at this moment, nonexistent.

I ask you – is this any way to run a railroad?  

At a minimum the obvious shift in what business schools are doing and in how they are doing it should give us pause. After all, for generations it is business schools especially (though not exclusively) that have professed to teach leadership and management. And, at a minimum, the obvious crisis in public health should give us similar pause. It’s clear that leaders across the board – not just the president of the United States! – have failed in their primary purpose. To keep Americans safe from harm – not just physical harm but financial harm.

There are of course exceptions to these general rules. Leaders with traditional M.B.A.s in hand who have excelled. Leaders who foresaw the possibility if not probability of a pandemic. And leaders who since the pandemic have managed it admirably. I am thinking, for example, of Jerome Powell, Chair of the Federal Reserve, who is being given high marks for his unprecedented response to this unprecedented situation.  

Still, none of us is likely to look back at this moment without cringing at the thought of most of those most directly in charge. Leaders in government and yes, in business and in other sectors as well who failed to pass the test of their time. They, though, failed us because we failed them. We failed adequately to educate them, to train them, and to develop them – to prepare them properly for what could, and did, lie ahead.  

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