To what extent do business schools really help develop leaders
The question “Are leaders born or made?” has long been debated by academics and practitioners. In an analysis of great 20th-century business leaders, it found that success comes from a combination of context and characteristics. In studying business leaders within their unique contexts (for us, within the decade in which each became a CEO or founded a company), we were able to see the power of this combination. All of the business leaders we studied possessed certain characteristics commonly associated with leaders (such as vision, perseverance, risk tolerance, etc.), but it was less the possession of any specific set of characteristics than the deployment of them in ways that capitalized on the context in which they found themselves that set these leaders apart.
They knew when and how to use their personal characteristics to capitalize on opportunities presented by their environments. Business schools can aid students in the process of understanding and appreciating the contexts in which they will operate. In addition, business schools often help to refine and enhance an individual’s understanding of his or her own leadership potential. The biographies of our great leaders suggest that some leaders may well have had natural talents that were apparent early in their lives that they were in a sense born leaders. Equally, though, there were just as many who appeared to have learned to lead over time, from mentors, from experience and from education.
One of the core teaching methods, pioneered, is the case method. Some of the most difficult situations in business history are laid out for students, and they’re expected to come up with a rigorous and well reasoned solution all on their own. It’s the tried and true way to train students expected to be the top executives of the future.
How important is an academic pedigree for business leadership
The importance of an academic pedigree changed considerably through the 20th century. An academic background was not a prerequisite for success in business in the early decades of the century. In some entrepreneurial cases it still is not a prerequisite, but increasingly the pursuit of an M.B.A. degree has become a typical part of the path to advancement in management. In a study of 1,000 business executives, it became increasingly apparent that in the mid-1970s the MBA degree grew in prominence and relevance. A top-tier M.B.A. is by no means a requirement for success, but is provides a pathway to access and opportunities that otherwise may not be open.
There are many individuals who, in their time and in their context, were great. Would they be successful at another time or in another context? Without the ability to change and adapt over time, a lasting legacy is difficult to achieve. In our study of business executives across the 20th century, we found that there were certain companies that produced a consecutive series of great business executives, including General Electric, 3M, Avon and Wrigley. The ability of these companies to continually produce stellar results with different leaders is a testament to both their company cultures and the adaptability of their CEOs over time.
Some founded new businesses or created new industries that emerged from the evolving contextual landscape. We called these executives entrepreneurs. During the early years of the 20th century, many entrepreneurs emerged as the U.S. became increasingly interconnected through the railway system and the proliferation of national newspapers. These two forces provided a foundation for national branding and for entrepreneurs like Will Kellogg (cereal), Milton Hershey (chocolate) and Henry Heinz (condiments) who seized that opportunity.
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