MBA’s and Leadership

I am often asked by Executives I work with about the worth of an MBA, whether it will in fact contribute towards their improvement as leaders and in their careers?

From personal experience and in my dealings with leaders that acquired an MBA qualification, it doesn’t always give aspiring leaders all the tools they need to become great leaders. Still, for many the MBA degree has been touted as the ticket to career success.

Universities offering the degree more often than not promise their students that they will leave with a superior body of knowledge, critical thinking skills, ability to apply their new found knowledge to issues facing their organizations, an understanding of best practices and how to employ them, a global business perspective, and so on.

While improvement in these areas is worth paying for, even should an MBA be able to deliver on the promises, no degree or qualification can in reality adequately teach a person the leadership and life skills necessary to lead successfully in today’s complex, ever changing sociopolitical, economic and technological environment.

There are studies, for example by the Academy of Management, that indicate MBA qualifications do not necessarily have the impact that students and organizations expect, and that US business schools were not effective in preparing students for the real world of business.

Such studies found that some business schools were not doing enough to train students to apply practically what they learned in the classroom. For example, some reports indicate that 40% of U.S. CEOs mentioned in a specific Fortune article “Why CEOs Fail,” had MBAs (Charan & Colvin, 1999).  

And that’s where the problem lies: contrary to popular perception, the MBA does not automatically turn people into leaders. It does not, for example, teach, and more importantly demonstrate to students the actual skills of how to motivate and move people forward successfully; how to deal with the attitudes of people and to move them from a negative into a positive state, like many uneducated leaders can often do effectively; how to be patient when necessary; how to act tough when called upon to do so; how to live and act in accordance with universal values; how to control one’s emotions; how to be authentic; and much more.

In fact, mentoring, executive coaching, innovative in-house training and thrusting real life challenging opportunities at leaders can be far more effective in helping to develop critical leadership skills.

I believe it was Edward De Bono who told me once that he argued with a Harvard Professor that their university was not the factor that determined the success of graduates. The professor did not buy his argument so De Bono finally asked him what would happen if a bunch of smart people walked underneath an archway, would they still be smart when they passed through the other end. The professor answered yes. So, he explained that this was what happened at Harvard, smart people walked into the school to begin with, and therefore Harvard did not make them smart or ultimately successful. Not the perfect argument, but he has a point.

If a person already possessed those very attributes needed to be successful as a leader, before they started doing an MBA, they would most likely still have those attributes after completing the MBA. And in my view these skills are more often than not taught in the family.

The converse is true for an individual that did not possess the success attributes before starting an MBA in that he/she will not necessarily acquire these during the programme, especially if he/she participated with the wrong expectations and attitude.

Because the MBA is rigorous and time-consuming (often testing personal relationships to the limit) it can certainly test commitment, discipline and the ability to work hard, long hours, as well as severely test the desire to grow and develop oneself. Again, someone that starts an MBA with a rich supply of these attributes will simply build on this foundation.

However, keep in mind that the real breakthrough from being a mediocre leader to becoming a great leader is to shift one’s focus from oneself to the main goal and others – empowering, lifting, developing and even caring for others.

An MBA can also improve a person’s general business knowledge and, for example, add to their ability to provide strategic direction to organizations, but it does not teach participants how to confidently confront constraints that inhibit movement. I know several MBA graduates that are dead scared to confront non-performers or to have those necessary ‘courageous conversations’ with employees; that are simply not secure enough within themselves to openly engage employees. These individuals will not become great leaders until they overcome their fears.

I know MBA graduates, or other well qualified individuals for that matter, who struggle to exchange their knowledge for money; or they struggle to collect what is due to them; or they cannot get themselves to go out there and ask for business – sell. All the qualifications in the world will not help such a person to become a successful businessman, for example.

Providing strategic insight to organizations are often not the most important components of leadership. In practice leadership also focuses on the ability to achieve the plan, under extreme pressure and as mentioned before deal with obstacles that may slow down movement towards the end goal and to hold others accountable for their performance. Successful leaders have in common “the desire and ability to cause effective movement”.

Another challenge with the MBA is that it is so over-marketed, resulting in unreasonable expectations, that participants begin searching for high-paying jobs halfway through the course, sometimes demanding more than what companies are prepared to pay for middle management.

Some companies neglect to ask themselves whether their MBA graduates are delivering according to what they were recruited for. Local companies need to realize that there is no university that can completely teach people leadership and other behavioural skills.

The MBA programme predominantly focuses on business skills, not the finer leadership skills that are so critical. It really can be an excellent qualification. But organizations should see it for what it is and not as a route through which to abdicate their business imperative responsibility to develop authentic leaders on the job.

The ultimate aim is to reach what someone once said about Mark Lamberti, former CEO Massmart: “Applied academics come to mind – a balance between sound intellectual grounding and real hands on experience.”

While studying your MBA or any other qualification, or being developed as a leader in any way, keep in mind that what you learn is intended to at least contribute towards the following simple yet important universal skills necessary to achieve in today’s workplace, in no particular order:

Situation dynamics: As a leader you are bombarded by never ending situations, experiences. You need to be able to sense the dynamics at play in any given situation, to be able to simplify and understand so that you can lead effectively.

People and relationships: Some of leaders’ greatest and worst physical and emotional situations happen with other people. Leaders have to persuade and move people towards a goal. In fact leadership is all about people. So, as you study, don’t just focus on the acquisition of knowledge but lend more weight to the interactions with people.

Choices and decisions: Leadership is all about choices, decisions. Great leaders make the right calls more often than they make the wrong ones. Decisions must be made in order to move situations and people forward. As a leader you have a choice of how to utilize your knowledge and understanding gained. You have to choose how you respond to human beings around you, to different relationships. And, you choose what your attitude is from situation to situation.

Handling obstacles and challenges: Leaders encounter, directly or indirectly (through others), challenges, trials, and obstacles along the way, in various degrees. Problems and challenges are taken to the leader for perspective, understanding and at times decision making.

Creating movement: Throughout all situations, from associations with people to obstacles that confront leaders, they make decisions so that they can generate movement. If leaders don’t make decisions they will mostly stand still. Other words for movement are often growth, development or change.

Ultimately leaders are in the business of creating movement!

In short, to succeed at movement leaders must be able to motivate people both individually and in teams; they must be able to unite people around a clear direction; and they must know how to mobilize relevant structure or resources for the job at hand.

Smart employers are and will become more selective in who they employ into key leadership positions. They will begin to recognize the need to recruit managers with not only some academic qualifications but life skills that extend beyond management and technical skills; individuals that have matured because of real life, enriching and even painful growth experiences that are irreplaceable, that cannot be replicated in safe or academic environments and so add to an authentic character.

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Adriaan Groenewald is a leadership expert and commentator. Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP or @LeadershipPform.





Louis has been fanatically endeavoring to uncover universal leadership principles and models for longer than most of us have been alive. He is an author, leadership expert, father, grandfather, and the Co-Founder of Leadership Platform.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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