B-Schools Gone Adrift

Harvard Business School defines its mission as “(t)o educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” Tuck School of Business states its mission as, “Tuck develops wise, decisive leaders who better the world through business.” Stanford Graduate School of Business aims to “(c)reate ideas that deepen and advance our understanding of management and with those ideas to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world,” and MIT’s Sloan School of Management says “(t)o develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice.”  INSEAD, the business school for the world, has the mission: “We bring together people, cultures and ideas to develop responsible leaders who transform business and society”

IIMA aims “(t)o continue to be recognized as a premier global management school operating at the frontiers of management education and practice while creating a progressive and sustainable impact on society.” IIMB has an elaborate mission statement, “Nurture innovative global business leaders, entrepreneurs, policy-makers and social change agents through holistic and transformative education – Provide thought leadership that is contextually embedded and socially relevant and makes positive impact – Pursue excellence in education and thought leadership simultaneously without making any trade-offs.” IIM Kolkata states its mission as, “(t)o develop innovative and ethical future leaders capable of managing change and transformation in a globally competitive environment and to advance the theory and practice of management.”

It is clearly discernible from the above that the top-ranked Business Schools of the world are now about ‘leaders’ and ‘leadership’ where ‘management’ is sometimes mentioned in the passing and ‘business’ is practically absent. Some scholars argue that although management and leadership overlap, the two activities are not synonymous. Furthermore, the degree of overlap is a point of disagreement. In fact, some individual see them as extreme opposites, and they believe that good leader cannot be a good manager and the opposite is true.

It is also clear that business schools have substituted leadership paradigm for the managerial one in stating their mission or purpose. The consequential question that emerges is whether the leadership paradigm constitutes an adequate foundation for a professional business school. One of the central features of a bona fide profession is possession of a coherent body of expert knowledge erected on a well-developed theoretical foundation.

Despite tens of thousands of studies and writings on leadership since the days of the Ohio State Leadership Studies, several scholarly reviews of the literature on leadership have found little progress in the field. Most studies failed to even define the terms ‘leader’ and ‘leadership.’ There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept. Competing theories abound. We find great men theories, trait theories, environmental theories, person-situation theories, interaction-expectation theories, humanistic theories, exchange theories, behavioural theories and perceptual and cognitive theories. The dynamics of leadership have remained very much a puzzle. We still know little about what makes a good leader. Research that aims to decipher intrapsychic thought processes and resulting actions involves the study of “psycho-political drama” that relates managerial personality both to role behaviour and to the administrative setting.

In business schools in India, leadership is possibly being taught, using an ad hoc, convenience based amalgam of any of three distinctly different approaches, each of which possesses a certain validity but no one of which in whole or in part, make up for an element of a genuinely professional education. The first approach focuses on content and the transmission of explicit knowledge derived from academic theories in the fields of psychology, sociology, and economics. A second approach focuses on the development of interpersonal skills and their application to small-group situations. In this approach, leadership is conceptualized as tacit knowledge that must be mastered through hands-on practice rather than as a matter of explicit knowledge or content. A third approach associates leadership with personal growth and self-discovery and focuses on giving students opportunities for personal development. This approach gives students a great deal of freedom to explore personal values and use a variety of exercises and self-assessments, such as the MBTI, in an attempt to help students integrate discoveries about themselves into their career choices and professional lives.

Thoughts of leaders and leadership bring a wide array of images to mind, often conveying emotional reactions. Some leaders elicit thoughts of strength, power, and care; others recall the forces of terror, malevolence, and destructiveness. Our pervasive judgments of a leader’s degree of goodness or evil are reflected in epithets such as Ashoka the Great, Alexander the Great or Akbar the Great yet not everyone agrees that they were all great. For some, they were ‘the terrible.’

Our most secret desire, the one that inspires all our deeds and designs, is “to be praised.” Yet we never confess this because to announce such a pitiful and humiliating weakness arising from a sense of loneliness and insecurity, a feeling that afflicts both the fortunate and the unfortunate with equal intensity, seems dishonourable. We are not sure of who we are or what do we do. Full as we may be of our own worth, we are distressed by anxiety and long to receive approval from no matter where or no matter whom. Evidence shows that because narcissistic personalities are often driven by intense needs for power and prestige to assume positions of authority and leadership, individuals with such characteristics are found rather frequently in top leadership positions.

All people show signs of narcissistic behaviour, albeit of differing magnitudes. Among individuals who possess only limited narcissistic tendencies, there are those who are very talented and capable of making great contributions to society. Those who incline toward the extremes, however, give narcissism its negative reputation. Excesses of rigidity, narrowness, resistance, and discomfort in dealing with the external environment is very evident in those cases. The managerial implications of narcissism can be both dramatic and crucial.

Leaders may thus be seen to occupy different positions on a spectrum ranging from healthy narcissism to pathology. These are not distinct categories. These are factors that distinguish between health and dysfunction of the leader. To understand the different types of narcissistic orientations beginning with the most unreasonable and proceeding toward the more functional, it is easier to look at three sets (black, grey and white), which could be referred to as reactive, self-deceptive and constructive (adaptive). In practice, however, a distinction may be more difficult to make. The influence of each of these configuration on interpersonal relations and decision making in a managerial context are different. Does an MBA degree programme add to or mellow down the degree of narcissism amongst the graduates? 

Not having answers to the dilemmas that are described above does not prevent me from raising some questions, though I am not sure, to whom these be addressed to – leaders or managers, of business or business schools:

  • Is it time to stop referring to MBA schools as Business Schools and rechristen them as LEADERSHIP SCHOOLS?
  • Since the focus has shifted to Leadership, is it leadership in any specific walk of life, some limited facets of life or in every walk of life? Are politics, diplomacy, government, security included?
  • Is crisis leadership (response in emergency and unforeseen situations like Mumbai terrorist attacks or shut-downs due to COVID-19) included or is immaterial being no different?
  • Since the words ‘business’ and ‘administration’ are now out from the mission statements of these schools, should an MBA degree be rechristened as an ML (Leadership) in its most expansive form or MBL (Business Leadership) in its most narrow orientation or something in between?

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First published 11 Aug 21

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Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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