Developing Leaders for Difficult Times

Developing Leaders for Difficult Times

Amidst the wreckage of automakers, insurers and banks, ambitious professionals now need to develop a wider set of skills than ever if they are successfully to climb the corporate ladder. Hard work and technical ability might once have been enough to ensure promotion to the board room or the partnership table. Today inter-personal skills, a flair for selling ideas and a capacity for developing people are all equally as important. But combining all these talents under the name of ‘good management’ is no longer sufficient. The top positions are no longer occupied by managers, but by leaders.

But isn’t leadership just a fancy name for effective management? While there are obviously common elements to being a manager and being a leader, the pixie dust of great leaders comes down to their ability to inspire others.  Professor Anat Lechner at NYU Stern School of Business challenges the command-and-control-follow-me approach, instead emphasizing an enabling role. In her courses on leadership training, participants learn to distribute power and support from behind rather than simply lead from the front. “While leaders inspire the mind and heart of their followers, they are asked to act humbly and ‘egolessly’,” she explains. “They need to empower others to take a front seat and facilitate rrelationship, authenticity, meaningful conversations and self expression of team members.”

At its best therefore, leadership can achieve much more than simple management. In a survey of fifty global companies, the research firm ISR found a direct link between effective leadership and commercial performance. In organizations where their superiors received an ‘average’ leadership rating from employees, sales improved over the course of a year by just over 6%. But in organizations where they were rated highly, sales rose by more than 10%.

But don’t you have to be born with leadership skills, like the ability to sing well or draw anything more than a doodle? Many of the world’s major business schools have set up specific leadership departments and offer courses which ostensibly suggests that you can learn how to lead in the classroom. But even these schools appear to admit that the real picture is more ambiguous. According to Professor David Sims of the Cass Business School in the UK, “We have come to the conclusion that the idea of the ‘born leader’ does not stand up; born to lead what, when and with whom? The idea of leaders being ‘made’ is equally romantic – nobody knows how to ‘make’ a leader.” Instead schools seek to develop the nascent leadership ability that individuals already have, but in difficult times like these, how do they go about imparting the special skills that an executive may need to motivate and inspire?

Marc Buelens, who teaches on the international MBA program at the Vlerick Management School in Belgium, now devotes a large part of his leadership course to an extended case study of the polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton. Sometimes over-shadowed by his contemporary, Captain Scott, Shackleton’s leadership skills were remarkably demonstrated by the way he managed to save his whole team when they became trapped in the Antarctic during a failed expedition. “Examining Shackleton’s methods can teach you five key lessons a leader needs to learn to perform effectively,” says Professor Buelens. “how to bring order and success to a chaotic environment, how to work with limited resources, how to let go of the past, how to embrace troublemakers and how to be self-sacrificing.”

Other schools are also using less conventional ways of teaching how to lead under pressure. New students on the MSc in Management at Nyenrode Business School in the Netherlands, find themselves in a ‘boot camp’ run by ex-marines where they are taught, not just to be good leaders, but good followers. And participants on the school’s international MBA program work with professional actors who role play through challenges they face at the organisations where they undertake their external projects. In Spain at the ESADE business school, participants on executive education programs also pass through a ‘theatre’ class aimed at improving the communication skills which the school sees as key to effective leadership.

Other major schools may take a more orthodox approach but still one rooted in the challenges presented by the current economic crisis. At Georgetown’s McDonough School, all MBA students are now required to undertake a ‘Leadership and Business Ethics’ course because, as associate dean Jett Pihakis puts it, “We tie these two things together because we believe they are inextricably linked and we want students to appreciate the connection.” The school also ensures that students study leadership through a wider lens, organizing a Leadership Breakfast Series that features not only the CEOs of major oil companies, investment banks and consumer goods giants, but also senior US Government officials and former leaders from around the world.

Perhaps the key element behind the ways that all of these schools are preparing their graduates to lead through the crisis is the way they focus on reality rather than abstract theory. “It’s not that we ignore leadership theories,” says Carol Rue of the UK’s Warwick Business School, “but we are reacting to feedback we get from recruiters of MBAs to provide students with the practical skills they will need to lead in the real world. That’s why we don’t just provide coaching in this area but also send everyone out to work with local not-for-profit organizations addressing a specific problem or challenge. We find it’s one of the best ways of developing really practical leadership skills – skills that are perhaps more needed now in the workplace than ever before.”

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