The Leadership Blind Spot

Today’s business schools are ignoring one of their biggest blind spots: They don’t teach the relationship-building skills essential for contemporary business leadership.
The Leadership Blind Spot

At an AACSB conference during the 1990s, a presenter discussed the results of a nationwide study about the role of communication edu­cation in MBA programs. The findings had revealed that most MBA programs gave scant attention to communication subjects, generally confining them to electives on writing and presentations. A standing-room-only audience of deans, MBA directors, and faculty crowded into the room because they wanted to add more communications courses to their curricula but didn’t know how to go about it. They also were hoping for answers to various perplexing questions: 

  • What communication competencies do future busi­ness leaders need to possess if they’re to be effective?

  • How much should we teach theory versus strategy versus practice?

  • Where in the MBA curriculum should we include communication training?

  • How and where do we find faculty capable of teaching this subject?


Unfortunately, most of those questions still persist today, 15 years after one of us—David Pincus—made that presentation. That’s because business schools are plagued by a very large blind spot: They don’t understand or know how to teach the relationship-building skills required for contem­porary business leadership. 

Who Needs Relationships?

In a 2007 survey released by execu­tive search firm Spencer Stuart, cor­porate recruiters overwhelmingly agreed that MBAs need enhanced interpersonal skills. These include the ability to serve a wider range of audiences—such as customers, employees, and stockholders— while tolerating intense scrutiny and relinquishing command-and­-control leadership approaches.

More recently, Harvard schol­ars Srikant Datar, David Garvin, and Patrick Cullen described this pressing need in their 2010 book, Rethinking the MBA. They wrote: “The landscape of business is shift­ing from leaders who had high authority and faced low conflict to leaders who have lower authority and face greater conflict. Leader­ship skills that worked in the old model are unlikely to work today. MBAs need to understand how to work ‘through’ people, how to motivate and inspire. That takes skill and practice. MBAs need to ask themselves, ‘How do I engage people to accomplish a task while I remain in the background?’”

In the mid-2000s, we became fascinated with this new brand of empathy-centered leadership and set out to interview individuals who embodied it. We started by focusing on two individuals whose visions of leadership are nearly identical: Doyle Williams, who spent 12 years as dean of the Wal­ton College of Business at the Uni­versity of Arkansas, and Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson, who guided Delta’s workforce through the trauma of post-bankruptcy and a merger with Northwest Airlines. Both had dramatic stories to tell about leading stakeholders through periods of transformational change.

More important, although the organizations they led couldn’t have been more disparate, both were empathy-oriented leaders who emphasized relationship­ building—and their approaches bore little resemblance to the “leader knows best” attitude taught at most b-schools and practiced in most executive suites. From their stories, and the testimony of their staff members and other stakeholders, we can learn much about the human dynamics of effective contemporary leadership. And we can then teach these leadership essentials in our business school programs.

How Do They Do It?

We analyzed reams of interview transcripts from personnel and stakeholders at Walton College and Delta Air Lines, and we also studied the work of independent leadership experts, to pinpoint five core principles inherent to the Williams-Anderson prototypical brand of leadership:

Empathizing: Listening and responding to others’ feelings and concerns; thinking and perceiv­ing as they do. Former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein told us, “The most critical factor for any leader of any organization is empathy—a sense of humanity and decency to others.”

Involving: Inviting stakeholders to participate meaningfully in the change process so they feel owner­ship in the organization’s destiny. Toward this end, Williams orches­trated a massive strategic planning exercise involving faculty. (See “Win­ning Faculty Support,” page 44.) He also created several dean’s advisory boards comprising students, business professionals, alumni, and donors.

Communicating: Sharing thoughts and information with stakeholders continually, candidly, and personally—and seeking their viewpoints in return. Anderson told us that nothing was more important than his contact with Delta employees via every available medium, but the most meaning­ful and impactful contact was in person.

Persisting: Understanding that organizational change is a sequential process that takes time, patience, and determination. Wil­liams never conceded failure; if one approach didn’t work, he assumed that another one would.

Envisioning: Imagining a shared, desired goal that fuels everybody’s motivation to achieve it. This requires guiding stakeholders through the process of identifying a collective future that becomes theirs, not the leader’s. For instance, Anderson helped Delta’s people see for themselves why merging with Northwest would enhance their collective financial prospects—a lot faster than Delta could do on its own.

These five fundamental principles encompass a leadership paradigm that is both based on and driven by the building of mutually satisfying relationships. Leaders like Williams and Anderson succeed by continually honing and creatively applying their interpersonal and persuasive capabilities. To them, leadership is primarily about treating people respectfully. Listening to them. Understanding them. Being honest with them. Involving them. Communicating with them. Relating to them.

Incorporating these principles into MBA curricula would be a giant step toward producing future leaders who know how to build trust—the essential precursor to creating the enduring relationships necessary for an organization’s long-term success.

Refocusing MBA Education

One way to help students develop empathy is to create courses that teach them basic communication skills and force them to consider alternate points of view. But we also offer these three ideas to schools that want their MBA graduates to be compassion­ate leaders who see themselves as facilitators of positive change:

1. Reconceptualize leadership and organizational change to ground them in relationship-building.

Make sure the MBA curriculum teaches communication strategies— such as reputation management, media relations, and persuasion techniques—in addition to basic relationship-building skills such as writing and presenting. As Delta’s Anderson says, “It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are or your strat­egy is. If you can’t get your team to come together and follow you, it’s not going to work. B-schools could certainly benefit from teaching what it takes to motivate people and lead a large organization.”

Rethinking the institution’s per­spective on the nature of leadership and organizational change might require letting go of a long-held, familiar viewpoint, but it’s the cru­cial first step. This altered view of the essence of leadership becomes the cornerstone of an MBA pro­gram that wants to produce empa­thetic leaders. Rethink, reconceive, redefine—then redo.

2. Integrate human behavior education throughout the MBA experience.

When relationship-building lessons are incorporated throughout the curriculum, MBA students realize their emotional and social intel­ligence are as crucial to their lead­ership roles as their knowledge of finance and marketing. Integration can be a tough sell to faculty, as it puts perceived constraints on their scheduling and teaching freedoms.

But it’s doable.

The Yale School of Management chose to restructure on a large scale in 2006 by revising its first-year MBA core into a set of integrated, multidisciplinary courses orga­nized by key stakeholders such as employees, customers, investors, competitors, and society. Another school might choose to integrate on a smaller scale, perhaps by tuck­ing a memo-writing assignment into an accounting course taught jointly by an accounting professor and a communications consultant. Or a school might have finance and journalism professors team-teach a multiperspective topic such as public disclosure or corporate governance. Ideally, integrated programs will turn out MBA students who don’t distin­guish between human and business behavior, but see them as one and the same.

3. Recruit more faculty who have both business experience and human relations/communication knowledge.

This may be the toughest nut to crack for b-school administrators: finding MBA faculty with the desired mix of skills in business and social sciences. Most of the ones we know are semi-retired public relations executives and business journalists who relish mixing it up with bright MBA students. But we believe there are more candidates who would be open to teaching such courses if they were asked, so deans need to get the word out.

One recent development that might make it easier for MBA programs to find the right faculty and curricula is the MBA Initiative sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). This pending pilot program will involve Dartmouth College and four other schools. PRSA will supply those MBA programs with a turnkey cur­riculum and accompanying course materials, presumably adaptable to varying formats and deliverable by faculty across disciplines.

Relationships, Always

To Doyle Williams and Richard Anderson, it is a fundamental truth of business life today that nothing is more crucial to an organization’s prospects—or a leader’s effective-ness—than rock-solid relationships with key stakeholders. For far too long, far too many b-school leaders have ignored this truth or allowed it to hide in their blind spots.

Today, fortunately, more corpo­rate and b-school leaders are seeing leadership for what it truly is. They might have taken a lesson from Mike Krzyzewski, heralded head basketball coach at Duke Univer­sity and a card-carrying member of the Williams-Anderson School of Leadership. In his 2001 book Leading with the Heart, he writes, “Almost everything in leadership comes back to relationships.”

Indeed. It comes back to rela­tionships, always.

J. David Pincus is an executive coach and former MBA program director and professor in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Harold E. Rudnick is an independent management consultant and former senior vice president of pur­chasing and merchandising with Vons Grocery Company, a West Coast retailer.