Teaching Leadership to MBAs, European Style

Teaching Leadership to MBAs, European Style

I often wonder about the MBA challenge that comes with sticking a couple of hundred bright and ambitious young professionals in a room, and hoping they will all get along and support one another. Surely there will be personality conflicts, cultural clashes, competition for recognition, and more than the odd crossed word? Just take a look at our political leaders for a taste of that.

This is of course what business schools face every time they welcome an incoming class. Though united by a common goal of personal and professional development, and typically relishing the professional and cultural diversity of the class profile at a top business school, surely MBA students sometimes give in to those baser instincts of pride and envy in the MBA hothouse. After all, those vying to make the dean’s list, or wanting to secure their place with a particular recruiter, brush shoulders with their competition every day. And yet time and again, MBA alumni talk about the value of fellow students, and making a lifelong network of friends.

So I was interested to learn about the collaborative approach to leadership development that has emerged at one of Europe’s leading business schools, HEC Paris, following a comprehensive program review with consultancy firm Bain & Co. Throughout the MBA program, students are constantly evaluated in terms of their positive influence on their peer group. Are they in the center of the network? Do others come to them when they have a problem? How do they set an example for others?

As Associate Dean Bernard Garrette explains, influence and personal engagement are key elements of an effective leader. “Leadership means bringing people along with you, and knowing when to roll up your sleeves and lead by example.” To foster this, the school has developed a new course called “How to be influential.” Garrette insists that a leader is first and foremost a good general manager, so the MBA program pushes students to be extremely competent in the core business skills of finance, accounting, marketing, and strategy. But the next step is aptitude, and the need to know how to motivate others and make good decisions. For this, students follow a step-by-step method of rational decision-making.

Beyond the classroom, the program provides a number of opportunities to demonstrate leadership skills. They include numerous clubs, an executive committee that meets with CEOs, the MBA Tournament—Europe’s largest annual gathering of MBA students, which brings together more than 2,000 participants for three days of sports competition—and a grueling commando course at the elite military school Saint-Cyr. Apparently there is a fit between networks of influence and clambering around in the mud, but professors join the students to help them analyze their contribution, looking at what worked and what didn’t, mutual respect, and the importance of learning to follow as well as learning to lead.

The goal is to produce the sort of MBA graduates that Bain & Co. research shows many of the major recruiters are looking for—smart individuals with mastery of back-to-basics core skills, who don’t try to be too clever or overthink things, and have a proven ability to manage teams and motivate others.

What appears to set this approach apart is that HEC Paris turns to fellow students to identify the true leaders in the class. While the MBA program directors make a list of “formal leaders” that they have observed, they then ask students to nominate “informal leaders” to measure their influence among their peers. On the basis of these combined results, the school gives Leadership Awards.

For me, what is really interesting is that a major business school has had the openness of mind (and the courage) to take a leadership model from somewhere else—in this case from the consultancy industry—and admit that it might be better than the one it had been teaching before.

A business school willing to admit it doesn’t always have all the answers, but that it might have the ability to go out and find them? Pigs may be applying for their pilot licenses before the year is out.

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