By DUFF McDONALDAPRIL
What does one learn at graduate business school? Business, one assumes. Or more to the point, the management of business. But peruse the website of any business school in the country or in the world, for that matter and you may come away thinking that the biggest topic they teach is "leadership."
The dominant brand, Harvard Business School, claims to "educate leaders who make a difference in the world." The University of Michigan's Ross School does one better, developing "leaders who make a positive difference in the world." Kellogg at Northwestern develops "brave leaders who inspire growth in people, organizations and markets."And Duke's Fuqua says it does what it does because "the world needs leaders of consequence."
Apparently, so do business schools: When asked by Charlie Rose in January why Harvard's president had tapped him to be the school's dean, Nitin Nohria attributed the choice to his "background in leadership."
It hasn't always been this way. For much of the 20th century, the paragons of business education promised to create not leaders but managers, those economic actors whose emergence came about at the dawn of the mega-corporations, and whose power increased alongside them. The manager was the noble steward of the American economy, and would be so until the 1970s, when the nation turned on its management elite in the midst of a recession and accused it of negligence.
Wesley Bedrosian for The New York Times
Caught flat-footed selling a title, "manager,"that had lost its social cachet, the ivory towers of business scrambled to find a new pitch. And they found it in leadership.
Business schools' foray into the teaching of leadership can be traced to mid-1977, when Abraham Zaleznik, a Harvard professor, published a paper entitled "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" The answer was an emphatic yes. Leaders were visionaries who got the troops excited to march into battle. Managers were platoon sergeants who actually marched them into battle.
But the questions were obvious from the start: Is leadership an emergent quality, both situational and context-specific? Or is it something you can actually teach? That is, can you be a leader without ever leading something? Business schools insist you can.
In his 2007 history of the M.B.A.,"From Higher Aims to Hired Hands,"Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College and a professor of leadership development, delineated the various pedagogical approaches. Most lie along a spectrum, with explicit knowledge and theory on one end and skill and technique on the other. Kenan-Flagler at the University of North Carolina, for example, leans heavily on sociology and psychology in constructing a "scientific" approach to the task. Kellogg, Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania and Booth at the University of Chicago, on the other hand, emphasize role-playing and team-building exercises to develop leadership experience.
A third approach involves a deep dive into one's own values and ideals, with the ultimate goal to be an "authentic" enough leader that others will march to the tune you're playing. According to one course description at Harvard, authentic leaders "exhibit high standards of integrity, take responsibility for their actions, and are guided by enduring principles rather than short-term experience." Leadership development, Dr. Khurana says, is "a personal journey."Most schools incorporate all three approaches, addressing the tangible skills of leadership the ability to work in teams, influence others, manage conflict and communicate.
So who should teach all this? Fortune 500 C.E.O.s? Management gurus? Academics? Ann L. Cunliffe, an expert on organizational studies who now teaches at the University of Bradford in England, at first refused to teach a leadership course in an executive M.B.A. program — she didn't think a professor had any business telling seasoned executives how to lead. But she changed her position when it occurred to her that leading a business and leading a class involved the same challenges:"thinking critically, seeing situations in new ways, being able to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, learning from experience and mistakes, knowing yourself, and," she wrote in a 2009 paper, "being passionate about what you do."Dr. Cunliffe calls this the "philosophy"of leading. But it could also be called a philosophy of life.
Which raises the question, once again, of whether leadership can be packaged and taught, rather than accumulated through experience.
John Van Maanen, a professor of management at M.I.T. Sloan who teaches a course named "Leading Organizations," isn't so sure it can. "Even today, three-plus decades in, there's no real definition of it,"he says. "We can make people more conscious of ethical dilemmas in business, of the difficulty of directing people in times of adversity, and the confidence and communication skills necessary to do so. But the idea that such skills can be transmitted so that you can lead anybody at any time, that's ideologically vacuous."
"It's difficult not to be frustrated by the excessive focus on it,"he says,"but it's become so popular that we apparently can't teach enough of it."
Dr. Van Maanen is not alone in his skepticism. Doubts have always existed about whether there's truly an adequate theoretical foundation to leadership, opposed to the study of management, rooted as it is in the disciplines of modern business: finance, accounting, marketing, operations and the like. As Joseph C. Rost outlined in his 1991 book,"Leadership for the 21st Century,"the lack of agreement on the matter means that leadership is practically "anything anyone wants to say it is," and leaders are "anyone who is so designated."
Duff McDonald is author of "The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business."He is writing a book about Harvard Business School.
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