Developing leaders is what business schools aspire to contribute to society. The pledge to do so features prominently in mission statements, web pages and course brochures—and it is as appealing as it is controversial. While large numbers of students flock to undergraduate, MBA and executive programs that promise to transform them into “leaders,” the last decade has seen a mounting wave of criticism of what happens in those programs. Questions have been raised from outside and within management academia not only about whether and how business schools truly fulfill their promise to develop leaders, but also about what kind of leaders their graduates become and on whose behalf—with whose interests at heart—they lead.
For all the fascination and controversy that surrounds leadership, there is broad consensus on two key points. First, becoming a leader is not just a matter of acquiring a body of knowledge and practicing a requisite set of skills. It entails deeper personal work. That is, it requires acquiring a clear sense of oneself—an identity—as a leader, and aligning it with one’s personal values, history and purpose. The second point of consensus is that becoming a leader—and staying one—is a social endeavor. It requires understanding, connecting and giving voice to, the social context that ultimately grants or denies one’s permission to lead. Learning to lead, in short, is not an abstract matter. The only way to do it is through experiences—of leading as well as of following—and ongoing reflection on those experiences to distil lessons that may in turn inform future practice.
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