The Mind of a Leader

The psychology of leadership is changing. Today’s organizations want leaders who coach rather than control, who give counsel, not commands. To teach these skills to students, educators are delving into the minds of effective leaders to discover just what makes them tick.
The Mind of a Leader

Traditional concepts of leadership are deeply ingrained in the human psyche: Children grow up playing “follow the leader,” mimicking every action and gesture of the child at the front of the line. In movies, the platoon leader never leaves behind a soldier, and the captain always goes down with his ship. In essence, leaders direct, command, and control, receiving the glory and accepting the blame.

At least, that’s the way it used to be. Enter the leader for a new age, one equipped to work in groups, make decisions collaboratively, and delegate power to others. As corporations require more leaders and fewer followers to add to their ranks, many business schools are reinventing their programs to educate a new generation of leaders who must, in essence, defy tradition.

“In the past, business believed that a leader was like the captain of a ship: cool, calm, collected,” says Barry Posner, dean of Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business in California, and professor in its Institute of Spirituality and Leadership. “Now, we see that leaders need to be human. They need to be in touch, they need to be empathetic, and they need to be with people. Leaders need to be a part of what’s going on, not apart from what’s going on.”

Indeed, the diehard mavericks of yesteryear would find themselves quickly overwhelmed in the modern business environment. As a result, corporations have made it clear that the traditional mainstays of leadership—individualism, unilateral decision-making, and edicts from the mountaintop—simply won’t cut it anymore. Instead, it’s the cheerleaders rather than the ringleaders whom corporations seek. It’s up to business schools to fill that order.

The Discipline to Lead

Many believe it’s time to make leadership a discipline in itself, because its purview has expanded considerably. Leadership skills are a necessity for the kindergarten teacher, the Peace Corps volunteer, the family member. It’s not just for CEOs and high-ranking government officials anymore.

Already students from institutions that offer degree programs in leadership are in demand. For example, programs such as the decade-old Jepson School for Leadership Studies, an undergraduate liberal arts program at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and the one-year-old MBA/Master of Arts in Leadership at the Thierry Graduate School of Leadership in Brussels, Belgium, have come into their own.

Leadership degree programs are the “actual expression of the strong ‘renaissance’ of leadership in recent years,” emphasizes Jean-Pierre Bal, director of the MBA/MAL program at the Thierry School. “The real challenge to our field of education is that leadership is not an exact science, nor are its boundaries precisely defined. By its very nature, leadership generates a continuous state of alertness, awareness, and adaptation of its contents.”

In fact, “leadership” is no longer about directing or managing— it’s about taking initiative, says Joanne Ciulla, a professor of leadership at the Jepson School. “When our students are 22 years old, they’re not going to run General Motors, but they might be leaders in their work groups, or in their homes and communities,” she says. “We are sending the message to students that leadership is not about being the boss or at the top of the heap. It’s about taking responsibility.”

Transforming leadership from a single course here and there into a discipline is a necessity, many educators argue. Only through such focused study can institutions fill the growing need for leaders, not only in business, but in society, says John Alexander, president of the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“There has been a huge shift in thinking. Our tendency has been always to look to an individual for leadership,” says Alexander. “But now there’s an understanding that leadership is not always correlated with positions of power and authority. It is something that can come from anywhere in an organization or community. It can manifest in many places in many different ways.”

Leadership’s Gone “Soft”

A study from The Leadership Trust Foundation of Hereford shire, England, found that 73 percent of CEOs removed from their posts were fired as a result of “ineffective leadership”—more than the number of executives fired for unethical behavior. Add to that the implosive effects of unethical accounting practices with companies such as Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, and other prominent American corporations. Many experts believe it’s not difficult to assign a cause to these disturbing effects: A lack of adequate leadership skills is becoming epidemic.

Such examples are a call to action, says Roger Gill, program director of the MBA/Master of Arts in Leadership program at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Gill is also director of the Research Centre for Leadership Studies at The Leadership Trust Foundation, which runs the program jointly with the University of Strathclyde.

“Practical leadership skills have been severely neglected in business school programs—on both sides of the Atlantic,” says Gill. “Most MBA programs have concentrated on cognitive learning, management models, and the use of management tools and techniques. In spite of this, they’re still turning out what BusinessWeek 20 years ago called ‘highly skilled barbarians.’” Practical leadership skills such as emotional intelligence, teamwork and teambuilding skills, facilitation skills, oral communication skills, coaching and mentoring, and scenario planning, he argues, have largely been left out of the business school curriculum.

Many believe that this state of affairs is in the process of changing—quickly. Private and public organizations have expressed a need for a new type of leader, emphasizes Bal of the Thierry School. The functional “hard skills” of business, such as marketing, finance, and operations, are “no longer a guarantee for success,” says Bal. “The so-called ‘soft skills’ are now equally important, if not more. Teaching those skills is within the realm of leadership education.”

Higher education institutions, not only business schools, have turned to these soft skills with a vengeance. But those skills are a bit more amorphous than the standard university fare. It’s easy to teach the “hard skills” of statistical analysis, accounting, and even organizational behavior, say educators. They each follow a process and produce a product. Less tangible are notions of self-awareness and evaluation, group interaction, communication, and the leviathan of soft skills, moral fortitude.

“We are teaching something that is an abstraction. It’s not like teaching math or history. What we’re doing lies between theory and practice,” says Ciulla. “However, when our students leave, we want to make sure they’re able to pull together the theory of leadership with the practice of leadership, and incorporate the values involved in both.”

Leader, Know Thyself

There has been growing awareness of the psychological dimension of leadership, according to Alexander of the Center for Creative Leadership. That dimension is, perhaps, the greatest challenge for educators—determining how they can unlock students’ knowledge of their own motivations and principles so that they are better able to influence others, he says.

“At CCL, we tend to view leadership through the lens of the behavioral sciences, such as psychology. We look at leadership in the general framework of ‘emotional intelligence’— the so-called ‘human’ side of leadership,” says Alexander. “If you don’t understand yourself very well, your chance of being able to influence, inspire, and empower others is low.”

Bal of the Thierry School agrees, noting that self-assessment—whether an individual is a low-level manager, an upper-level executive, or the leader of volunteer group—is the foundation of good leadership today. “The most difficult process for faculty is to stimulate each participant to learn how his or her own personality and conduct influence others,” he says. “This is where the vast domain of self-leadership actually starts: self-awareness, self-improvement, and the ability to cope with disappointments and failure.”

This point has emerged clearly at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business. As part of the course of study at its Institute for Spirituality and Leadership, executives come to campus each month to give an “up-close-and-personal” presentation about their thoughts on what it takes to be a good leader. The results, says its dean Barry Posner, can be eye-opening, for the visiting executives as much as for the students.

“The speakers tell me that it’s the most difficult presentation they’ve ever prepared,” says Posner. “I’m not asking them to speak about their businesses. I’m asking them to talk about how they learned to lead and what it means to them to be leaders. One of our speakers said she had to go back and call people with whom she’d worked in the past and ask them what they thought she did.”

While leadership is no longer a “heroic” ideal, the idea of courage has not disappeared. Courage—the ability to stand up for what one believes and work for what one knows is right—is perhaps the most difficult soft skill to instill in students, says Posner.

Perhaps never before has leadership been so consciously discussed, debated, defined, and in many cases, debunked.

“We go further than skills and abilities,” he says. “We try to peel the onion back one more level and talk about values. We ask each student, ‘What’s important to you? What would you be willing to stand up for?’”

In turn, the students often learn by asking visiting speakers that same question. “When we invite speakers here to talk about leadership, they’ll often talk about things they did,” says Posner, “Students will ask, ‘What made you believe you could do that?’ Speakers will say, ‘Well, I just knew.’ And students will ask, ‘How did you deal with self-doubt?’”

Those are tough questions, questions that leaders of two decades ago might never have asked themselves. But that’s the point, says Posner. “All of the people who come here to talk about leadership on a personal level end up thanking me afterward for the invitation. They gain new insights on themselves, making connections they hadn’t made before they came.”

Management Isn’t Enough

What does it mean to be a leader? Perhaps never before has leadership been so consciously discussed, debated, defined, and in many cases, debunked. But one thing is clear: Its evolution is far from over. And many are looking to business schools to, yes, lead the way.

Interdisciplinary business education, including the liberal arts, may be a step in the right direction, says Ciulla. “Having been in both worlds, I would say that business schools are really behind the times in leadership studies. Many of them are teaching the social science stuff, but you can’t understand leadership from just one discipline alone. It’s bigger than that.”

For instance, Ciulla believes that dropping courses that seem too oriented toward the liberal arts, such as history, can be a mistake for business schools. “Many business schools have eliminated their business historians, but business history in a time of drastic change is one of the most important areas for a business school student to study,” says Ciulla. “Students come here, and they don’t know how we got to where we are.”

More important, an overemphasis on management education may be another problem. A renewed focus on leadership education may keep business schools at the top when it comes to supplying corporations with the people they need.

“You can’t be an effective manager these days without being an effective leader. There’s too much complexity, too much turbulence to simply ‘manage,’” says Posner. “Management is all about the status quo; leadership is about doing things differently.”