Beware the navel-gazing leader

Herminia Ibarra Leadership The Financial Times

Many top business schools — Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Berkeley, Kellogg to cite a few — have overhauled their MBA curricula in recent years. Among the most popular changes is increasing “leadership” learning. This trend seems to be driven by a troika of stakeholders: employers, who no longer want to have to train new recruits from scratch; students, who know they will be on their own making a staggering number of career changes over their working life; and the business schools themselves, which are increasingly finding fingers pointed their way as one after another corporate scandal erupts.

As a leadership professor myself, I quarrel with neither the cry for more leadership nor the motives driving it. It is the implementation that concerns me. In many MBA programmes across the world, leadership has been reduced to personal growth and self-discovery via coaching, self-assessment and introspection. While personal development is a worthy aim for an educational experience, it is, at best, a narrow definition of leadership, at worst, institutionalising the sort of navel gazing narcissism that is the antithesis of collective striving towards a meaningful goal.

Asking “are we teaching leadership appropriately?” of course begs the question of “what is leadership?” Still hotly debated in academic circles (a 1993 survey found 221 definitions), the closest we have to a consensus might be textbook author Peter Northhouse’s definition as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” or Gary Yukl’s version, which relaxes the assumption of a single leader: “the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives.”
We’re producing plenty of leaders

These definitions are based on two assumptions that are frequently overlooked in popular efforts to train leaders: 1. leadership is a social process and 2. it involves influencing a collective. Anyone who buys into them will question the utility of spending precious curricular time “self-assessing” fixed traits a la Myers Briggs or competencies extracted from biased samples of successful leaders.

But, somewhere along the line, notions of “common goal” and “collective effort” gave way to “personal leadership.” When Wharton unveiled its curriculum redesign, for example, the school said it would “provide multiple new leadership development opportunities through learning simulation courses, a two-year coaching experience and tools to offer self-analysis and self-reflection.” At the Yale SOM alumni reunions in November of 2014, which I attended, Dean Snyder stated that his school’s MBA curriculum had been redesigned to help students understand markets. On questioning he conceded that yes, sessions are also offered to help them better understand themselves.

The personal leadership/self-awareness trend probably originated with Daniel’s Golemans’ hugely popular concept of emotional intelligence and the subsequent assessment tools developed with the Hay consulting group. Through introspection, the theory goes, students gain awareness then mastery of their goals, values, purpose, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, mindsets and motivations. From there it is only a hop, skip and a jump to leading effectively.

The problem is that self-knowledge is not available directly: we can only do something and then observe the results of our actions. And, there is little evidence to substantiate two implied leaps of faith: from self-awareness to self-control or regulation (or, the infamous thinking-doing gap), and from self-regulation to social influence. After compiling all studies that had ever tested emotional intelligence (EI) at work, researchers Dana Joseph and Dan Newman found that it accounted for less than 1 per cent of job performance. After reviewing the research on leadership, HEC Lausanne professor John Antonakis concluded that “claims made by El proponents regarding the apparent necessity of El for leadership or organisational performance are unsubstantiated, exaggerated, misrepresented or simply false.”

Whatever happened to teaching students to analyse the complex social systems in which they will live and work? Or teaching them how they can intervene to change them — which some might define as the privileged role of leadership?

Today, students learn to assess themselves in a social vacuum using the corporate equivalent of the Cosmo quiz. We teach them implicitly that their “leadership” is a portable skill they carry with them from one place to the next, transferable across situations and settings as they search for the job equivalent of Cinderella’s glass slipper: the perfect fit.

In all fairness, many MBA programmes do attempt to inculcate interpersonal skills in small experiential learning groups: students do projects of various sorts, using the project context to practice communication, giving and receiving feedback and team building among themselves. But, they are rarely taught how to scale what they have learnt to make it applicable to real work life.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015 (registration required).