The Meaning of Leading

Two days ago the Financial Times published a supplement on business education. The point was to make public the rankings of some 70 executive education programs worldwide that had been graded according to their excellence.

Such rankings are of course seen as significant. Buyers take them seriously when deciding which if any executive program to select or support. Sellers take them seriously because receiving a high ranking is a feather in their cap – and money in the bank.

In addition to the rankings the FT referenced some noteworthy trends such as, for example, the globalization of executive education. No longer is Ex Ed simply the purview of, most obviously, the Americans and Europeans. Among others Latin Americans are getting into the act – the 10 schools in Latin America that participated in the FT rankings in 2014 “had in increase in revenues of more than 17 percent in 2013, on top of growth of more than 13 percent in 2012.”

But to someone like me, a student of leadership, the most salient trend in executive education is the shift away from general or open programs to customized ones – to programs designed by schools of business solely to satisfy specific clients. What this means is that managers, leaders, are increasingly being educated not for a general purpose even vaguely related to the common good, or even for the good of the corporate sector as a whole. Rather their education is much more narrowly focused – it is “tailored to individual companies’ needs.”

You could claim this is fine  if it were demonstrably effective. But it is not. According to a survey by the Henley Business School, “leadership” continues still to top companies’ concerns, with some 71 percent of respondents saying that leadership is their “biggest challenge.”

Perhaps the assumption is that the increasingly narrow focus of leadership education will address this “biggest” of all challenges. I would suggest though that this is highly unlikely. Businesses do not operate in a vacuum. They are not isolated or insulated from each other; nor are they separate and distinct from the larger context within which they are embedded.  Moreover the problems that most bedevil us – climate change, terrorism, poverty and income inequity – are not exactly confined to the corporate sector. Quite the contrary, they require just the sort of collaboration that transcends groups and organizations, just the sort of work that requires an education different from the one that is implicit even in the idea of a “customized” program. Of course business schools are just following the money… and the money these days is in customized programs. But if they themselves are to be leaders not followers, business schools must insist on a leadership curriculum that is broader, much broader, than the one currently in fashion.


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