'We have a lot of good managers, but not enough good leaders'

Business schools are increasingly emphasising the leadership skills gained on MBAs, says Kathy Harvey
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The Independent Online

There's no shortage of advice for would-be business leaders; lorryloads of books have been written on the subject of leadership in all its forms. Management gurus navigate the lecture circuit, armed with PowerPoint presentations promising to unlock the secrets of boardroom success.

The Government has even entered the fray, setting up leadership centres in everything from the NHS to higher education and warning, in a recent White Paper, that business schools could do more to foster the skills of Britain's future leaders. Business and management may be two of the most popular subjects on the curriculum, but the secrets of how to lead organisations remain, it would seem, elusive.

So could it be that an MBA (Masters in Business Administration) is the best format for fostering leadership potential? According to the Association of MBAs, which accredits some of the country's most prestigious MBA programmes, there is every reason to think that acquiring this qualification - a well-worn rite of passage for ambitious managers - is one of the most effective methods of honing your leadership skills.

"An MBA improves your leadership potential for a number of reasons," says Jeanette Purcell, the Association's chief executive. "The qualification gives you both credibility and confidence - both important in leadership."

The MBA was originally designed as a general degree - a tour de force of the various aspects of management - from how to read a balance sheet to marketing and human resources. But business schools are increasingly emphasising its potential to nurture leadership potential. Teamwork and joint projects are key elements in many MBA programmes, helping to test individual ability to perform under pressure.

Purcell believes these aspects of MBA programmes are particularly useful. "It's not easy to teach leadership in a conventional way, but the business schools we accredit are introducing innovative ways of developing these skills," she says. Offering modules on the subject may not, she claims, be the best way forward. "Most schools are adopting an integrated approach which picks up on leadership issues in various contexts." Courses on business ethics, for instance, provide opportunities to discuss aspects of leadership.

Two universities, Strathclyde and Exeter, have taken the connection between the MBA and leadership further than most, offering MBAs specialising in the subject.

Professor Roger Gill, director of research at the Leadership Trust and visiting professor for the Strathclyde programme, is convinced that business schools are right to shift the emphasis of their MBA programmes towards leadership. "It's quite surprising they haven't done more in the past," he says. "We have a lot of good managers in this country, but not enough good leaders."

While no amount of teaching can transform someone overnight into a charismatic chief executive, Professor Gill believes every MBA programme should study leadership. "You can't really teach it, but you can teach about it," he says. Students on the Strathclyde programme study the same core courses as the general MBA students, before specialising. The leadership element of the MBA includes a mixture of lectures and practical team-orientated exercises (caving and scuba diving are deemed to be excellent formats for teaching students how to overcome fear and to trust others) where students are expected to set goals, motivate others and work together.

At Exeter University, which also offers an MBA specialising in the subject, the emphasis is much more on studying different theories about what makes a good leader. Mike Wood, who runs this section of the Exeter MBA, uses case studies of well-known leaders to encourage discussion among students but cautions them against drawing up a list of leadership qualities. "It's a far more complex thing. The idea of the hero, of looking for universal qualities in a leader is a fallacy, but it sells books."

Business schools are anxious to avoid a simplistic approach to the subject, but there is little doubt that anyone starting an MBA course in the next few years will have their attention drawn to the need to be leading, rather than just managing well. By the end of this year Lancaster University will open a new centre for excellence in leadership, complete with a £10m building on its campus. The university is one of three organisations - the others being the Open University and Ashridge Management College - chosen to champion the cause.

Not surprisingly, Lancaster is planning close links between its MBA programme and its other activities at the leadership centre. "What do you want to do an MBA for if you don't want to be a leader?" asks Steve Kempster, Lancaster's current MBA director. "When we look through MBA applications, we are trying to identify people who want to make a difference, whether that is in the public or private sector - or in a charity."

The MBA programme emphasises the need to learn problem-solving skills. Teamwork, and an outward bound course for MBA participants, are part of the learning process. This doesn't mean, however, that the fittest and fastest are most likely to end up as leaders of the pack. Instead, students are encouraged to work at those personal qualities which make them most effective. "We have moved from teaching bland business administration to a much more holistic approach," says Kempster. "It's about a broad understanding of what it takes to lead a group."

The so-called "soft skills" elements of MBA programmes, including everything from presentation skills to crisis management, are increasingly seen as important elements in the armoury needed for would-be leaders. Durham Business School makes MBA students roleplay boardroom situations as a way of replicating the tensions and dilemmas of a real leadership dilemma.

Cranfield University's long-running crisis management module, where students face a mock press conference in the wake of a company disaster, is another example of the move towards more practical training for MBA students.

"It's fashionable to talk about leadership," says Jeanette Purcell of the Association of MBAs, "but it's not always clear what's meant by that term." She argues that true leadership involves a mix of inherent qualities, such as creativity and personal effectiveness skills such as good communication. "The evidence is that employers particularly value these qualities and often consider them to be as important as business knowledge or experience."

The fashion for leadership studies is, it seems, a timely one. And it may not be necessary to sign up for modules in the subject or put yourself through a gruelling few days in the Scottish Highlands in order to pick up some of the mysterious aura of leadership. A reputable MBA course gives you the chance to rub shoulders with high-flyers from a wide range of backgrounds.

Surveys show that graduates consider this one of the most valuable aspects of the experience. Networking with other potential leaders is probably one of the best ways of ensuring that you keep your own foothold on the upper echelons of management.