Lessons For Our Leaders

"You don't have amateur brain surgeons; why should you have amateur leaders?" Sir Andrew Likierman, Dean of the London Business School

Imagine you hear about the appointment of a new CEO at a major company in which you hold shares. Instead of going for someone with in-depth experience of the sector and a track record of success running large organisations, it’s decided to go for an individual who likes making speeches, smiles a lot and is keen to hold babies whenever there is a camera about. Do you think you might be worried about its stock-market performance and dividends? Why? After all, it’s often what happens when you vote in a political election.

While some politicians have impressive backgrounds in the world of commerce, many now seem to treat politics as a profession in itself. George W Bush may have had a career in the oil industry (albeit a fairly unspectacular one) before moving into the White House, but both Clinton and Obama had made a living as lawyers before taking up politics full time. Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair had done the same, and Downing Street’s current resident David Cameron was a PR man before he entered parliament.

So, given that political leaders are in effect running the most important businesses in the world, shouldn’t management schools be doing something to help plug the gaps in their knowledge and experience? Surely we’d all benefit from the can-do culture associated with successful companies?

Many business schools would like to try. “The challenges we face today aren’t just about politics, they are also about business, and politicians need to really understand the commercial world if the two are to cooperate successfully,” says Désirée van Gorp of the MBA programme at Nyenrode Business University, which has previously schooled a Dutch prime minister and the country’s present finance minister. “A business school is the ideal place to learn the skills that can make this happen.”

At present, few if any politicians seem to see an MBA, or any other business masters programme, as a useful mid-term career option, unlike their counterparts in banking, consultancy or the corporate world. Consequently most schools only get an opportunity to point them in the right direction if they can catch them at a relatively early stage of their development.

It will be interesting to see how much the Harvard experience influences Republican nominee Mitt Romney if he does manage to win the US presidency. Or for that matter, what effect his education at the top French business school HEC Paris will have on François Hollande, the new occupant of the Élysée Palace. Though financial markets may be uneasy about his attitude to the corporate world, no one gets through a school like HEC Paris without gaining a clear understanding of how business really works. And as a graduate, Hollande remains plugged into a network that includes some of France’s most successful captains of industry, such as Henry de Castries, head of AXA.

Perhaps the most promising idea for combining business know-how with political ambition is for business schools to point their students towards future careers, not just in the boardroom but in a parliament or senate. Can the relevant leadership skills be developed here? Sir Andrew Likierman, dean of the London Business School, argues that leadership can indeed be taught, but not from scratch.

“People have got to have certain elements in them which help them to be leaders. But you don’t have amateur brain surgeons; why should you have amateur leaders?” He is proud that many of its graduates become leaders, citing Singapore’s deputy prime minister Wong Kan Seng and UK transport secretary Justine Greening as examples of politicians who use their MBA to good effect.

In Spain, the IE Business School is trying to blend business and politics by putting students through the simulation game 10 Downing Street, which involves professional actors. As the name suggests, participants get to play the role of a British prime minister facing the potential collapse of one of his country’s top banks.

Of course, whether this sort of ‘frontline’ experience of the crises politicians have to deal with will have students actually focusing on the ballot box is open to debate. Once they have seen what’s involved and the consequences of getting things wrong, they might decide that heading a multinational is easier.

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