Why leaders should go back to the classroom

13 January 2016

Whether it be the charismatic style of leaders such as the late Steve Jobs at Apple, or having the right face to fit the bill, leadership is a topic always subject to intense scrutiny and critique.

Many managers and business leaders rise up through the ranks and with no training are suddenly put in charge, learning a new skill-set on the job. 

MBA and executive education courses provide settings for teaching people who are usually already leaders. They need not be high in the organisation hierarchy, nor do they need to do anything dramatic, big or heroic to deserve the label 'leader'. But, typically, they oversee others, manage limited resources, need to make decisions, and exercise initiative – they need to show ‘leadership’.

What are the benefits of sitting in a session on leadership then? Here are six ways going back to the classroom can prove beneficial to those eager to boost their leadership skills.

1 Disclosing new worlds

Working in the classroom with people who are already skilled in leadership is particularly enjoyable as it is demanding. It can certainly be enlightening for classroom participants.

"The classroom provides a setting in which their normal organisational life is disrupted," says Hari Tsoukas, Professor of Organisation Studies, who teaches Leadership and the Art of Judgement on the Executive MBA.

"Properly stimulated, participants can be encouraged to reflect on their own hitherto behaviour, of which they will have had limited awareness in the midst of their practice. They can see patterns they did not know about, they can revisit important organisational episodes and see them in a new light, and, through appropriate exercises and material, they can experience leadership moments which enhance self-knowledge.

"Teaching leadership is not like teaching accounting or physics – it does not so much impart new information as it helps disclose new worlds. Suitable material is needed for this, and what is better material than participants’ own experiences as well as others experiences that challenge a participant and invite them to take some action on."

2 Self-awareness

There is no science of leadership but there are practices of leadership which may be studied, reflected upon, and improved.

Professor Tsoukas adds: "The outcome of such teaching is subtle perception, greater self-awareness, and holistic understanding. The classroom is not a substitute for the real world but a temporary withdrawal from the real world so that one can be acquainted with concepts and ways of thinking, feeling and perceiving that will help one revisit what one had always known but had not been aware of."

3 Self-improvement as a leader

Everybody is looking for the next Steve Jobs and many want to be the next business guru, but learning about leadership is more about acquiring the right mindset to one day be great.

"One will not learn to be a great leader in a classroom, but one may begin to acquire the skill of on-going self-improvement as a leader," says Professor Tsoukas.

"A better leader rather than the great leader is what teaching leadership in the classroom should aim at."  

4 Learn from experience

"Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it," US General Dwight Eisenhower famously said.

Persuading people to follow you and listen to you is something of an art rather than a science. The classroom can help you gain the right mindset, but once taught, getting out and doing it is what matters.

"Leadership has always been about defining reality, focusing others’ attention on what needs to be done, and inspiring people to do it," says Professor Tsoukas. 

"And to slightly paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, stop all theorising about what a good leader should be. Be it! So, yes leadership can be taught, but it also requires people to learn from experience."

Eisenhower talking to troops
Image courtesy: Marion Doss Flickr
Leading from the front: General Dwight Eisenhower applying his ideas on leadership to troops preparing for D-Day
5 Lessons from history

There are many theories and textbooks on leadership, but many valuable lessons also come from history, General Eisenhower being one of them. Even in Shakespeare's plays and great literature there are lessons and influences to be taken on board.

Keith Grint, Professor of Public Leadership & Management, who teaches an executive education course based on leadership lessons from the Second World War and Organisational Behaviour on the full-time MBA, adds: "I suppose leadership has been building as an area of academic research since the end of the Second World War, which is when a lot of so-called professional leadership research starts.

"Its fruition to me looks like a desperate desire on the part of people to find somebody else to explain or blame for the current situations that we find ourselves in."

Professor Grint believes lessons can be taken from great thinkers and philosophers of the past who pondered on the question of what makes a leader, with the writing of Machiavelli, Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist writing at the end of the 19th century and the likes of Aristotle providing rich material.

He says: "Aristotle differentiates between knowledge (episteme), skills (techne) and practical wisdom (phronesis): the first is teachable; the second requires practice but the third can't be taught in the lecture theatre - it requires reflecting on practice, and that you can only get from leading in practice.”

6 Picking useful tools

A classroom provides a place to critically evaluate information and move beyond a list of needed leadership skills according to Dawn Eubanks, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science & Strategy.

Dr Eubanks, who teaches Advanced Leadership on MSc Marketing & Strategy, says: “Effective leadership requires a complex set of skills. There are many options for how to build this skill-set besides a university, such as workshops run by consultants, in-house training, online learning, books, etc.

“There are strengths and weaknesses of all of these, but learning about leadership in an academic context gives the individual the knowledge to be able to discern and critically evaluate information and determine what is evidence-based versus anecdote or personal opinion.

“Leadership taught in an academic setting not only presents well-established and rigorously researched theories, but tries to build awareness of how to pick and choose useful tools, and critically evaluate them. This is important, because this richer understanding of leadership can help individuals understand the nuance and complexity involved and realise that leadership cannot simply be broken down into a list of top 10 skills for leaders.” 

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