The MBA has been holding a steady course toward leadership and entrepreneurship over the last decades although the debate about whether these can be taught is still raging. Are leaders and entrepreneurs born with the necessary skills or do they need to acquire them through training?
There is an ongoing debate, a perennial cause of divided opinion, about whether academics are capable of teaching leadership and entrepreneurship and if, indeed, they are something that can be learned. Many believe that it is only entrepreneurs who can teach entrepreneurship by sharing their successes and failures and offering a detailed insight into the matter backed by practical experience. But even if there were a consensus on who should be doing the teaching, another problem emerges: do leadership and entrepreneurship lend themselves to being taught at all? Many argue that successful entrepreneurs and leaders have distinct, innate qualities that cannot just be transferred through teaching in the classroom. Conversely, many believe that leadership and entrepreneurship are skills that can be taught, honed, and nurtured.
Dawn of a new era
Business education nowadays places a high premium on leadership and entrepreneurship. INSEAD (France, Singapore) claims its MBA programme “develops successful, thoughtful leaders and entrepreneurs who create value for their organisations and their communities.” At the same time, IE Business School (Spain) aims at shaping “leaders that promote innovation and change in organisations, equipping managers with an entrepreneurial mindset that generates employment, wealth, and social wellbeing.”
Business education, however, has not always been centred on leadership and entrepreneurship. In fact, for much of the 20th century, business schools tried to groom students to be managers first and foremost. This changed in the 1970s, when the Western world was hit by recession and the management elite were accused of negligence. With the title “manager” fraught with negative connotations, business schools started looking for a new direction and found it in leadership.
The shift to leadership started in 1977 when Abraham Zaleznik, a Harvard Business School professor, published an article titled “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” He argued that an exclusive focus on building competence, control, and the appropriate balance of power omitted the essential leadership elements of inspiration, vision, and human passion which drive corporate success.
Entrepreneurship, which is all the rage in business schools right now, was also put under the spotlight in the 1970s, when entrepreneurs were no longer perceived as greedy and exploitative but as job creators and innovators. Entrepreneurship education is growing rapidly in business schools throughout the world nowadays. This trend is fuelled by tech innovation, economic change, and the growing number of people thinking about starting a company.
Can they be taught?
Experts have yet to reach a consensus on whether leadership and entrepreneurship can be taught. Are leaders born or is leadership something you can actually teach?
John Van Maanen, Professor of Organisation Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management (US), told the New York Times that business schools can make people more conscious of ethical dilemmas in business and of the difficulty of directing people in times of adversity, but the idea that such skills can be transmitted so that you can lead anybody at any time is “ideologically vacuous.”
However, a study titled “Developmental and genetic determinants of leadership role occupancy among women” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, indicates that leadership tends to be only 30% genetic, which implies that leadership skills can be developed. Another study, published by University College London (UCL) in 2013, also found that leadership is only partly hereditary.
Business school aspirants should know that, irrespective of whether they were born leaders or learned to be leaders, they will be asked to illustrate their leadership skills during interviews or via essay prompts. These skills should be visible in your CV/resume and online forms. Recommenders should also underscore them.
Virtually the same dispute is raging about entrepreneurship. On the one side are those who contend that entrepreneurs are born, that their brains are wired differently to those destined to stick to their salaried day jobs. On the other side are those who believe that people can be taught the general business principles and skills that will help them avoid the problems entrepreneurs typically run into.
Those in the born-entrepreneurs camp believe that while skills such as calculating risk and allocating resources can be taught, entrepreneurship requires certain life skills that come only naturally. Moreover, they claim that business education is pushing natural entrepreneurs to fear risk and failure, thus causing them harm. Overthinking and aversion to experimentation are other negative side effects cited by proponents of natural entrepreneurial ability.
Those who claim that entrepreneurship can be learned point out that entrepreneurial education nowadays is advanced and sophisticated, a far cry from the early courses that were primarily based on anecdotes. Today’s business schools are capable of pinpointing the common causes of failure among startups. Founders with entrepreneurial education are less likely to fall into the conventional traps that often trip up those relying solely on their gut feeling. Researchers at Harvard have found that nearly two-thirds of high-potential startups fail due to tensions within the founding and executive team. Entrepreneurial education can help founders to overcome such challenges.
And there are also those who prefer to navigate the middle ground, arguing that business school is not going to turn you into an entrepreneur, but will teach you some fundamental business skills such as financial and project management, marketing, delegation, etc. They claim that successful entrepreneurs need to have the right DNA makeup, but they also have to be taught other vital skills. Brian Morgan, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Cardiff Metropolitan University (UK), says that: “In general, about 40% of entrepreneurial skills can be thought of as ‘in the DNA’, but 60% of the competencies required to create a successful and sustainable business - such as technical and financial expertise - have to be acquired.”
How do B-schools do it?
So, how do business schools teach leadership and entrepreneurship? Some teachers draw from their corporate experience, while others point out that they do not teach leadership or entrepreneurship per se, but provide opportunities for students to learn it for themselves. The teaching of any subject is many-sided and a section in an article cannot do justice to the vast array of methods of leadership teaching used by business schools.
The HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management (Germany), for example, uses the so-called Leipzig Leadership Model, which serves as a focal point in HHL’s teaching generally, and henceforth also in the MBA programmes. “Even if leadership as a personal capability cannot, in a certain sense, be taught in business schools, we aim at supporting the development of this capability by offering and discussing useful concepts in combination with practical cases and real world examples,” says Dr Andreas Suchanek, holder of the Dr Werner Jackstädt Chair of Economic and Business Ethics at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management.
INSEAD offers a total of 12 leadership programmes, ranging from courses designed for executives at or very near the top of their organisations to programmes aimed at helping managers steer geographically dispersed and culturally diverse teams. The Challenge of Leadership programme, for instance, aims to improve students’ understanding of how human behaviour affects the functioning of an organisation. By focusing on conscious and unconscious behaviour as well as rational and irrational action, participants learn to manage irrational and dysfunctional processes in companies. The participants also explore their personal leadership styles and address ways of dealing with processes that fall outside recommended models.
There is obviously not a clear answer to the question of whether leadership and entrepreneurship can be taught. However, one thing is clear: if you want to become a leader you have to be ready and willing to develop new skills and the self-awareness to influence and inspire those around you. And if you want to be an entrepreneur, you certainly should have that entrepreneurial spark in you, but also accept that business school lessons on entrepreneurship can be more useful than pure intuition alone.
This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2017-2018 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “ Can Leadership and Entrepreneurship Be Taught”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.