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Henry Mintzburg and Frank Brown on Teaching Leadership


THE FINANCIAL TIMES published in a special section on Business Education, a leadership debate between Henry Mintzburg and Frank Brown that has gotten a lot of attention.
Henry Mintzberg
McGill University professor Mintzberg’s comments are a bit sensational at first blush, but he makes a good point. Mintzberg writes: “We have this obsession with leadership. Its intention may be to empower people, but its effect is often to disempower them. By focusing on the single person, even in the context of others, leadership becomes part of the syndrome of individuality that is sweeping the world and undermining organizations in particular and communities in general.”

At the core of what he takes issue with is the way leadership is portrayed. And rightly so. He has a problem with leaders being presented as “the great one who rides in on a white horse.” It gives the impression that the leader did it all by themselves. He adds: “We have too much of this leadership apart—the hyped-up, individually focused, context-free leadership so popular in the classrooms as well as the press. Courses and MBA programmes that claim to create leaders all too often promote hubris instead. No leader has ever been created in a classroom.”

How true. Leadership studies do need to be reconsidered. The current methodology no doubt lead Stanford’s James March to say the following in a recent interview in the Harvard Business Review:
I doubt that “leadership” is a useful concept for serious scholarship. The idea of leadership is imposed on our interpretation of history by our human myths, or by the way, we think that history is supposed to be described. As a result, the fact that people talk about leaders and attribute importance to them is neither surprising nor informative.

Leadership cannot be taught in the sense that a person can sit in a classroom and walk away a leader any more than one can read a leadership book every week and call themselves a leader. It is possible, however, to teach principles, to lay the groundwork for a way of thinking and to create awareness of traits and characteristics. But until a person combines all of that with their own thinking and character, making it a part of who they are, they are not a leader. And that simply takes time and practice. There is no short-cut to leadership.

The leadership journey is an ongoing journey into self-knowledge or awareness. It is a process of reflection to see where you stand in relation to where you should be and determining the steps you need to take in order to get there.

Mintzberg’s problem with the conventional MBA classroom is the way it is taught—overemphasizing the science at the expense of its practice and the kinds of “leaders” it tends to generate—MBAs that are too young, and have too little experience to appreciate what they are being taught. That is to say, it tends to produce heroic-type leaders that have no experience to fully understand the world they are charging-in to. As Mark Twain said, "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." It is astonishing how much these “leaders” find there is to learn after they’ve been out in the workplace for a while that never found a place—or they were never able to make a connection to—in the classroom.
Frank Brown

To get the experience and practice necessary to become leaders, Frank Brown, former dean of INSEAD (currently Managing Director & Chief Operating Officer at General Atlantic), writes, “Indeed, true leaders are committed mentors and supporters for training and development initiatives that allow employees to climb the leadership ladder.” He continues:
Simply said, the last thing the business world needs is more managers. On the contrary, it is in need of more leaders.

But let’s be careful how we define leadership. A leader may, in fact, be the person occupying the corner office. But, he or she may too be the person ascending the divisional ranks or the more youthful executive fresh from business school. The concept of leadership must not be confined to just the “headliners”; it must be a concept with the potential to include and apply to everyone.

On teaching leadership in the classroom you might take a look at Leadership Can Be Taught by Shanon Daloz Parks regarding Ronald Heifetz’s efforts at Harvard.

An important book in the area of leadership development is Welter and Egmon’s book, The Prepared Mind of the Leader, for this is where leadership really begins.

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