Learning to Lead—Responsibly

In programs that emphasize problem-solving, self-directed learning, and self-awareness, Universiteit Maastricht aims to help students chart their own course toward becoming more responsible leaders.
Learning to Lead—Responsibly

As a professor of managerial behavior who teaches courses on leadership, I’ve often been asked this question: “You’re educating the business leaders of tomorrow. What are you doing to help prevent the unethical conduct that led to scandals such as those at Enron, WorldCom, Ahold, and Parmalat?”

Many business schools have added an ethical component to their leadership programs, and those that base part of their programs on an exploration of ethical leadership face specific challenges. At the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration and the Universiteit Maastricht Business School in the Netherlands, we decided to take concrete measures to face those challenges. We wanted to provide a clear answer to those who asked us how we were preparing our students to become ethical, responsible leaders.

In our MBA and masters of international business (MSc) programs, we have designed part of the curriculum with this goal in mind. We have adopted an approach that immerses our students in group discussion, self-directed problem-solving, and self-awareness, so they develop a clear understanding of their personal values and their strengths and weaknesses as leaders.

We realize that the impact business professors can make on their students’ ethics and values may be modest. Even so, we believe that by adopting this pedagogical approach, we can be catalysts that put students on a path toward a lifetime of responsible leadership.

Defining Objectives

Before we designed the leadership and organization trajectory in our curriculum, we first defined our objectives. What qualities do responsible leaders possess that we want to instill in our students? We found several recurring themes in a range of studies on leadership. Overall, the research defined a responsible leader as one who is honest and trustworthy, who possesses integrity, and who shows consideration and respect to others.

Based on these studies, we conceived the following definition as a guide: Responsible leaders build and sustain morally sound relationships with all stakeholders, and they take all stakeholders’ interests into account when making decisions.

These characteristics are grounded in an individual’s values, beliefs, or attitudes—they aren’t typically addressed on a personal level in a business school curriculum. But we believed that if our students developed such a mindset, they would understand how their organizations function not only on rational levels, but also on emotional and intuitive levels. Their decisions would be driven naturally by the best interests of the community, as well as the company.

To become effective leaders, students first have to develop a better understanding of themselves as human beings.

Once we settled on this definition of responsible leadership, we faced the next challenge: How could we design courses that emphasized both the rational and the emotional, intuitive aspects of leadership? And how could we do so when the majority of our student body had little to no relevant work experience, as is the case in most European masters programs in business?

Building a Community of Dialogue

Our answer was to adopt an approach that uses dialogue and coaching to help students develop self-awareness. To build a community of dialogue, we build on the existing pedagogy of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) that is used in all programs at Universiteit Maastricht. All students in a course are divided into tutorial groups of ten to 15 students; each group meets for two hours twice a week during the seven-week course. Academic staff members serve as tutors and learning coaches who help students solve business problems, analyze academic articles and case studies, and assess fellow students’ presentations.

So, in the PBL process, students, not their professors, take responsibility for identifying gaps in their knowledge to solve business problems. They embark on a course of independent study, looking for sources to close their perceived knowledge gaps.

For example, in preparation for a guest lecture by the human resources director of Unilever in the Netherlands, students were asked to analyze the ethical challenges that leaders face in the home, personal care, and foods industry. A dominant question emerged: How can a leader combine different leadership perspectives—such as value-based leadership, authentic leadership, and servant leadership—and still run the business to make a profit?

When the students could not answer this question on their own, they turned to empirical studies. Then, they asked the Unilever executive the question directly. From the information they gathered, they realized that they had implicitly held the stereotypical view of leaders as authority figures. They concluded that, to become effective leaders, they would first have to develop a better understanding of themselves as human beings than they currently possessed.

Encouraging Self-Directed Learning

The process of self-directed learning can vary from student to student, so we allow students a certain freedom to choose how they want to learn. One way we accomplish this is by making two students responsible for organizing and facilitating each tutorial group meeting. To prepare to lead the meetings, they must find ways to translate ethical issues from abstract theory into concrete examples that affect their own lives.

For example, the two student leaders of a session on ethical leadership designed a quiz based on the course readings. The student leaders asked the rest of the group and the tutor to judge the ethical situations illustrated in pictures and movie clips. They also told the group that whoever answered the most questions correctly would win a brand new iPod digital music player.

Their contest was actually an ethical experiment. Everyone, including the tutor, silently questioned the appropriateness of offering such an elaborate prize in a classroom setting where learning was the objective. Yet no one raised these concerns out loud. When the winner was announced, the student facilitators revealed that there was no iPod—they had designed the quiz to illustrate how easy it is to manipulate a group into doing something that each individual member might question.

For the rest of the meeting, the group analyzed why no one had spoken up, even though everyone admitted to having misgivings about the ethics of the quiz. In the end, the students—and the tutor—noted that they learned more from this exercise than they would have learned from any straight lecture, article, or discussion.

Students ask themselves two essential questions:
“How do I want to lead my life? What does that choice mean for my work?”

Gaining Insights

The tutorial group meetings offer a safe environment where students can examine academic content, discuss important issues, and reflect on responsible leadership and followership through personal interactions. Through these discussions, even our tutors gain new insights on leadership! 

For example, Mike, a student in our MSc program, had very limited work experience; even so, he liked to be in control of any situation. After a few meetings, members of his group offered him feedback on his style of interaction—they let him know that his directive, authoritative demeanor wasn’t very effective in a leadership role because it sparked a great deal of resistance among team members.

Mike was able to use this feedback before he led a group session. Even though it made him uncomfortable to relinquish complete control, he realized that he did often ignore the capabilities of the other students. When Mike prepared to lead a session on transactional and transformational leadership, he not only gathered material to illustrate the concepts, but also shared his deliberations with his group at the start of the meeting. He also asked for their help to conduct the meeting and considered everyone’s needs before making decisions. After the meeting, two group members provided Mike further feedback and discussed whether he viewed his new, more participatory leadership style as merely a change of technique or if he now saw more value in others’ capabilities.

These types of learning experiences are crucial in our students’ leadership development. They help our students build the self-awareness and respect for others they’ll need to be responsive, inspire trust, and elicit the best from their teams. These are, in essence, the characteristics we see in great business leaders.

Developing Self-Awareness

Within the tutorial group setting, we set up a Personal Development Trajectory (PDT) for students.. While PDT is part of the curriculum in the EMBA program, it is voluntary for students in the MSc program.

During their PDTs, students ask themselves two essential questions: “How do I want to lead my life? What does that choice mean for my work?” The trajectory is grounded in human psychology and specifically focuses on emotions, attitudes, and assumptions through the use of personal coaching; “intervision,” or the act of sharing experiences in the small group setting; and reflection. The objective of PDT is to help students improve not only their problem-solving abilities and understanding of business issues, but also their self-awareness, empathy, and interpersonal interactions.

At the end of the trajectory, students turn in learning reports about the insights they have gained through the process. For instance, students may have learned that they need to build more spare time into their schedules to relieve stress or that they need to delegate more. They might need more effective tactics for managing conflict, setting boundaries for themselves, dealing with criticism, or even relating to others without envy.

The PDT runs through the entire academic year. This time frame gives students plenty of time to work on the issues they identify as important to their leadership development and to reflect on their progress.

Making a Pedagogical Shift

When students take responsibility for their own learning, the role of the professor changes considerably. In a problem-based learning format, faculty still set learning objectives and exam content for their students. However, rather than act as authorities who answer students’ questions, they instead provide the resources for students to use to answer those questions on their own. Rather than take control of each class, they manage the class tutors to ensure that all student groups study similar issues and meet the same learning objectives. To be successful in this kind of educational setting, faculty must possess knowledge on group and personal dynamics and self-awareness, as well as knowledge on a specific academic topic.

To help new and existing staff learn to work in a problem-based context, our school employs training programs developed by the Faculty’s Education Research and Development department. At the start of their program, students also receive training about their responsibilities in a PBL context, which include providing feedback, chairing meetings, and adopting the role of the tutor. This preparation helps us create a culture where evaluation and reflection, not evaluation and appraisal, go hand in hand.

New faculty members, especially, often find this shift confusing. One professor noted that, at first, he felt as if his knowledge was not being sufficiently tapped during his students’ group meetings. Another noted that she nearly “bruised her tongue by biting it so often,” when she felt group discussion was going in the wrong direction.

However, as they learned new teaching skills and reflected on their classroom experiences with their colleagues, they realized the value of problem-based learning. They were amazed to discover that even when it appeared a discussion was going in the wrong direction, students somehow still found the right answers themselves. In the PBL process, our faculty also learn to use their expertise differently—they learn to meet student questions with more probing questions, rather than to immediately provide the answers.

A Reality Check

Of course, the program we have designed at Maastricht isn’t the only type of environment that can develop responsible leaders. Many other schools have designed programs that also address ethical issues in a leadership context, and these programs can vary widely. Even in our school, where the dominant pedagogy is PBL-based, not all faculty believe that the development of self-awareness and attention to interpersonal interaction should receive the same emphasis in the curriculum as academic content. Such diversity of thought is part of the richness of the academic environment.

Still, it’s of crucial importance that business schools make available to students a sufficient number of courses that address their personal and emotional development and allow them to adopt attitudes that suit responsible leaders. It is just as important that business schools offer faculty the opportunity to train in these areas. Different subjects in the business school might require completely different teaching pedagogies when it comes to addressing students’ leadership development. By taking a variety of approaches into account, business educators and administrators also adopt the attitude of responsible leadership.

Given these opportunities, business faculty will have a clear and straightforward answer to the question, “What are you doing to prevent unethical conduct in business?” They can describe the ways they and their students don’t just talk about responsible leadership—they act on it.

Mariëlle Heijltjes is a professor of managerial behavior and teaches organizational behavior and leadership at Universiteit Maastricht in the Netherlands.