The Changes Needed in Leadership Education

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 Modern Education system is based on scientific principles which most business schools accept for academic credibility. However, Leadership Education is more of an art than a science and needs to be taught like an art.

Next we discuss the reasons modern business schools fail to produce leaders whose careers, in general are successful as compared to their counterparts without business school education. We study the causes of decline of business school education and discuss some remedial measures.


While references and explanations are given to most statements in this paper, there are 3 fundamental assumptions I make without any explanation.

1. Human behavior is unpredictable in nature
2. “Leadership” and “Leadership Education” are not entirely the same thing and may have differences
3. Leadership Education is primarily delivered by Business Schools


Leadership Education as an Art

 The current Education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. Reason being that the whole system was invented round the world in the 19th century prior to which there were no uniformly structured public systems of education. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism.

The hierarchy came to be rooted in two ideas. One, the most useful subjects were science, technology and math, which came to define academic institutions and academic credibility. Two, the idea of academic ability came to be as a measure of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. The whole system of public education around the world was a protracted process of university entrance (Sir Ken Robinson 2006).

In 1959, the Gordon and Howell report described American business education as “a collection of trade schools lacking a strong scientific foundation” (Zimmerman, 2001). The Gordon and Howell Report and funding from the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Council (Pierson, 1959) started business schools on their continuing trajectory to achieve academic respectability and legitimacy on their campuses by becoming applied social science departments. In the process of achieving academic legitimacy, business schools took “on the traditions and ways of mainstream academia” (Crainer & Dearlove, 1999). Quantitative, statistical analyses gained prominence, as did the study of the science of decision making. In both their teaching and research activities, business schools “enthusiastically seized on and applied a scientific paradigm that applies criteria of precision, control, and testable models” (Bailey & Ford, 1996).

However, unlike scientific research, research at a b-school need not necessarily be implementable or even reproducible elsewhere. Infact, results observed by a company might not necessarily be implementable in another. This is because traditionally, science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions (Wilson, 1998); while leadership deals with humans behavior which denies predictability.

Moreover, scientific method works on the principle of reproducibility, which govern that any experiment has the ability to be entirely reproduced, in similar environments, at any point in space and time, either by the researcher or someone working independently. The unpredictability of human emotions and mindsets do not grant this right to leadership theories based on scientific principles.

If Leadership Education were to be visited by an alien who asked what is it for, looking at the output, who does everything they should, who are the winners, one would conclude that the whole purpose of Leadership Education throughout the world is to produce university professors who teach and research on Leadership Education.

Leadership Education is more of an art or craft than a scientific study. When an artist breaking the traditional rules of her/his craft does not make a bad art, but rather a new art which may or may not be appreciated. However, scientific theory is either right or wrong, and remains so at any point of time anywhere in the universe. Leadership decisions, like art, change credibility with context, audience, and time. Hence, it is safe to say that concrete theories are not the path to follow for Leadership Education, but rather contextual stories help develop leadership. One may read all literature available on Leadership and still, going against the theorized principles might make good decisions.

Leadership, like any art, is better learnt with practice than simply studying the available models. Leadership problems demand imagination, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking for their solutions. Teaching Leadership as a science with theories and numbers sounds good for academic credibility, but not for real world applications. That is similar to teaching dance via lectures in the field of human anatomy; or teaching cycling with an expectation that once one has learnt all the principles of physics and balance, one can learn to ride a bicycle without falling.

Why Business Schools fail to produce good Leaders

In the last half-century, the business of business schools has grown exponentially. Between 1956 to 1998, the number of MBA degrees awarded in the US grew from 3200 to 102000, i.e. by almost 32 times (Zimmerman, 2001). By 2001, 92% of all accredited colleges and universities in the US offered an undergraduate major in business (US News and World Report. 2002). In Britain, the number of business schools rose by 6 times from 20 to 120 between 1980 and 1996 (The Economist, 1996).

Since the mid-1980s, 36 Americans have each given more than $10M to business schools (The Economist, 1996). In the United Kingdom, business schools “are among the top 50 exporters, attracting over $640M a year from other countries” (Crainer & Dearlove, 1999). A McKinsey-Harvard report from 1995 estimated that non-degree executive education “generated around $3.3 billion and was growing at a rate of 10% to 12% annually” (Crainer and Dearlove, 1999).

Given the overbuilt setup of the MBA industry (Gaddis, 2000), and the huge profit-making sector it has turned out to be, it is not surprising that so many MBA schools have come up in such a short span of human existence. Usually, business schools charge between $7k to $110k for an MBA degree. This is much more than a regular engineering degree and lacks infrastructure such as laboratories and high-costing experimental equipment. The rationale behind this is that business schools offer faculty who are capable to earn more than engineering faculty in their respective areas. Also, a business school graduate, in general, tends to earn more than an engineering graduate. While this is true in most cases, this has led to business schools as a fast-profit generating enterprise where sometimes small incapable players jump in to have a slice of the pie.

From data gathered from Business Insider, Businessweek, The Economist, US News, Forbes and Financial Times (2011) on 341 US business schools, a study conducted shows that judging on the basis of starting salaries as a measure of Education competency, most business schools fail as compared to the premier ones.

As with any status based system, status is achieved partly through the status of the organizations with which one associates (Podolny 1994). However, most business schools fail to even come close to the standards set by the premier business schools.

Given the vast supply of an MBA degrees and everyone wanting one, the degree is being sold easily, however, each MBA degree does not have the same value as conferred in the above study. Low cost price and high selling price of business education makes it a “cash cow” at many universities. This is also proved by the numbers of programs which have proliferated including, more recently, part-time, evening, and weekend programs; executive MBAs; and expansion of existing programs. This huge supply of MBAs automatically translates into less advantage in terms of salary or other career outcomes for MBA graduates.

The current system of Management Education has created a bottleneck for competition even in good accredited universities where it’s difficult to get in but getting insanely easy, making grades or completion useless measures of learning. Grade inflation is pervasive in American higher education (Kuh & Shouping, 1999; Muuka, 1998; Redding, 1998).  As a consequence, almost no one fails out of MBA programs, which means the credential does not serve as a screen or an enforcement of minimum competency standards. If the MBA degree doesn’t really distinguish among people then it is no surprise that it doesn’t have much affect on career outcomes.

Armstrong, a professor who has taught MBAs for more than 30 years observed, ‘In today’s prestigious business schools, students have to demonstrate competence to get in, but not to get out. Every student who wants to (and who avoids financial and emotional distress) will graduate. At Wharton, for example, less than 1% of the students fail in any given course, on average… the probability of failing more than one course is almost zero. In affect, business schools have developed elaborate and expensive grading systems to ensure that even the least competent and least interested get credit (1995).’

In India, a city named Kota has come up with a network of non-accredited educational institutes which coach candidates for India’s most competitive university entrance examination, IIT-JEE where the intake is almost 1% of the appearing candidates and is decreasing annually by about 0.05% due to increasing number of candidates.

Kota specializes in coaching institutes which train students for IIT-JEE. In every institute, there are batches of students. Monthly tests determine the batches of each student. For example, the top 100 scorers will be put in one batch, the next hundred in another batch and so on up to the last hundred. This creates a discriminatory class division of which every one of the 80,000 students of Kota are a part. While it becomes highly depressing for students in the bottom-most batches, it tells the students where they presently stand by the IIT-JEE standards and which of them need to work the hardest.

Often, this discrimination on the basis of knowledge results in severe anxiety, depression and even suicides. While this is too extreme a measure to be taken at university level, it clearly shows that there needs to be a regular check on students academically to keep them in check and to let them know where they currently stand, so as to let them know what the prospects of their current position are. In business schools, this characteristic of education seems to be lost and is resulting in a pool of MBAs who do not know where they stand when it comes to looking for career opportunities.


– AACSB Newsline. 1999. Number of undergraduate business degrees continue downward plunge, while MBA degrees awarded skyrocket. Doctoral degrees on the decline.

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– The Economist. July 20, 1996. Dans and Dollars.

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– Wilson E O. 1998. Consilience: The Utility of Knowledge. New York, NY: Vintage Books. 49-71.

– Zimmerman J L. 2001. Can American business schools survive? Rochester NY: Unpublished manuscript, Simon Graduate School of Business Administration



Vishal Gupta

Student of Life