Why MBAs are the Worst Leaders

MBAs Make for Bad LeadersThe following is from an interview Steve Coomer had with Professor Henry Mintzberg. The excerpt below was taken from the discussion regarding what it takes to be an effective manager and why an MBA is not necessarily part of that equation.

You suggest that the dominance of the MBA as an educational standard has corrupted managerial practice. Why is that?

Well, because you have people coming out thinking they are prepared to manage, and they are not. And what is even worse you get people coming out who don’t even go into management, they go into consulting or finance. They do an end run around management and end up leaping from consulting jobs, or financial jobs, into chief executive chairs. And I think the performance of many of them is just plain dreadful. There are exceptions, but a lot of them fail terribly.

But what is it about an MBA education which you believe often makes people ill equipped to be leaders in corporations?

Confidence without competence. Which to me is equivalent to arrogance.

MBA courses tend to attract people who aren’t necessarily sensitive to people issues. We have a lot of evidence that these are people more concerned with numbers, and getting themselves ahead, than dealing with people. There’s a wonderful quote which comes from an interview with Harvard professor John Kotter. He did a study of the Harvard MBA class of 1974, tracking their careers. A journalist asked him if the people he tracked were team players. He said no, they want to run the team, create the team and lead it to glory rather than be a member of someone else’s team. And that is the antithesis of team working, wanting to run the team.

We talk about top managers. But anyone who’s on top of the team is outside the team, and doesn’t know what is going on. We describe organisations as networks, and we talk about top managers, but anybody who’s on top of the network is outside the network. That is exactly what the Kotter quote suggests. These people don’t want to be part of the team, they want to run the team. It’s the obsession with having to be in charge. You know leadership should be earned. Leadership shouldn’t be granted because you have a degree and an old boys network.

So how do you earn leadership?

You earn leadership from those that you lead. You earn leadership from earning the respect of the people. Kofi Annan was put into his position at the United Nations with tremendous support from the UN staff, he earned his leadership. McKinsey & Co elects its senior partner, its chief executive in effect, by a vote of the senior partners. I wonder if it has ever recommended that to any of its clients.

Can you learn leadership, or do you think it´s an innate quality?

Well, you learn it in the sense of experiences and exposures, challenges, and all those sorts of things. That’s how you learn leadership. Nobody has ever been made into a leader in the classroom. Courses that claim to create leaders are dishonest. You can’t create a leader in the classroom. What you can do is take people and enhance their managerial skills, and enhance their understanding of their job, if they are already in positions of leadership.

And I am totally against this notion that you can separate managers from leaders. This implies that leaders don’t have to manage, which means that leaders don’t have to know what is going on intimately in their organization. Which is wrong.

They have to be connected, and management is the way in which they are connected. Nobody wants managers who aren’t leaders. So why would we want leaders who aren’t managers, leaders who don’t know what is going on, who aren’t connected. It’s a phony distinction.

You have said “great organizations once created don’t need great leaders.” Do you still believe this? And what do you mean?

What I was trying to say is that it takes a special kind of leadership to start something from scratch. Because you’re really fighting all the odds. You are up against all the pressures, having to carve out your own niche. An established organization that’s sizeable really needs a motivated, enthusiastic workforce. That might take quiet, concerted, sympathetic and engaged management—more so than heroic management. There are all kinds of self-appointed heroes out there, running around trying to fix companies that aren’t broken.

Why is that?

Because people are paid obscenely for impressive gains in stock price. I think the press is mainly responsible because it wants to write about dramatic actions, not about steady, boring companies. What if really good management may be boring to observe? No mergers, no big dramatic acts. You don’t fire thousands of people every time the stock dips. Imagine that.

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3 Responses to Why MBAs are the Worst Leaders

  • Interesting hypothesis, but much too generalized.The interviewee does not appear “quiet,concerted, sympathetic and engaged” in managing his opinion about MBAs. It is always about individuals and not about an entire category of people. I believe that the point he is trying to make is that leaders/managers need to be empathetic and I know plenty of MBAs who are just that because without this, they would find it hard to connect with consumers.

  • I think alot of what is said in this blog is accurate within a narrow perspective. I agree that alot of schools and programs, particularly for-profit institutions, work to attract individuals who are not necessarily leaders with the promise that they will develop leadership skills in their program.

    However, I think that is a generalization. Many individuals in these same programs have come to the decision to pursue the MBA because they are in positions of leadership rather than in anticipation of promoting into them. To suggest that the entire MBA population is what is flawed is to throw the baby out with the bath water. An MBA, just like any other degree, is only one piece of the leadership development process.

    If a company hires someone to fill a position solely because of their MBA and not because of a combination of MBA, experience and achievement it can be compared to investing in a new venture without reviewing the entire business plan.

  • Well, I completely agree with the interviewee. His thoughts are so true as to what we see in many of the companies. You don’t really need an MBA to be qualified as aleader. Once you have that MBA degree after memorising the theories and so called jargons, you feel from within that you are now a manager who can get work done. But, sadly, more than three fourths of them who start the career with this mindset fail miserably. Getting respect takes a lot of effort. You need to be a person with integrity, and should be some one who holds many good values in life. This makes you stand apart from them. If you cant be a person with charisma, how can you even think of getting them do what you want. MBA degree doesnt teach you how to have those values in life. Your family, upbringing, experience, thoughts and many other factors play a vital part.

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