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No MBA? You Can Still be a Great Leader; Maybe Even a Better One

Individuals with MBA degrees don’t automatically make the best leaders—and MBA programs fall short when it comes to developing essential leadership qualities in their students.

The former statement is the key takeaway from “High-Resolution Leadership,” a report published earlier this month by global development leadership consultancy Development Dimensions International (DDI). Based on DDI’s nine-year investigation of skills possessed by 15,000 leaders from 300 companies in 18 different nations, the study revealed that when it comes to the full range of leadership skills required in today’s complex business environment, an MBA may not always be the best choice. While MBAs were found to “indeed make better managers,” the same “cannot be said for” the impact of the credential on stronger leadership, lead author Evan Sinar, Ph.D., DDI’s Chief Scientist and Director, Center For Analytics and Behavioral Research, said in a statement when the study results were released.

In conducting the research, DDI compared the performance of individuals with undergraduate business degrees and MBA degrees against eight critical leadership skills, including financial acumen, business savvy, compelling communication, driving execution, driving for results, entrepreneurship, influence, and inspiring excellence.

“MBA grads outperformed biz undergrads in financial acumen, business savvy, and strategic decision-making, but their coaching, results orientation, and visionary leadership skills fell short.”

MBA graduates consistently outperformed business degree undergraduates in financial acumen, business savvy, and strategic decision-making, by a respective 12%, 6% and 6%, but their coaching, results orientation, and visionary leadership skills fell short, by a respective 3%, 6% and 7%.

From the research, it is clear that MBA students require “more well-rounded background and experience to learn the important interaction and inspirational skills they will need” if they are to excel as leaders, Sinar noted in the statement.

Executive coach David G. Rohlander, author of “The CEO Code: Create a Great Company and Inspire People to Greatness with Practical Advice from an Experienced Executive,” believes there are other prerequisites to becoming a top leader that are unrelated to MBA degree training. “A pattern of successfully accomplishing your goals and an optimistic mindset are two of the most important traits for becoming a CEO,” Rohlander, whose company, DGR Inc., bears the tagline “The CEO’s Coach” and who currently serves as Chairman of Antigua Esteli Tobacco Corp., told U.S. News & World Report.

According to Forbes, there are “three major disconnects” that “prevent business schools, especially those with full-time MBA programs,” from developing leaders. Topping the list is a lack of sufficient emphasis on soft “people” skills, Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, told the magazine. Mintzberg said leaders understand that the most effective way to accomplish their goals is to get the most out of their people, and making the most of these differences is what makes leadership more of an art than a science.

The fact that conventional MBA programs offer “specialized training in the functions of business, not general education in the practice of managing,” comes into play here as well, Mintzberg observed. In school, he noted, MBAs become adept at how to analyze well-defined problems in functional silos, “but this isn’t leadership” and it does not train aspiring leaders to see the big picture, which is a “must-have” trait in the C-suite.

MBA programs also fail to focus on the importance of developing good strategies and being capable of execution; the latter is “the hallmark of great leaders,” according to Forbes. Business theorist Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, shared a sports analogy with the magazine to explain this assertion.

“Doing the right thing is important, which is where strategy comes in,” Pfeffer said. “But doing that thing well—execution—is what sets companies apart. After all, every football play is designed to go for a huge gain. The reason it doesn’t is because of execution—people drop balls, miss blocks, go to the wrong place, and so forth. So, success depends on execution—on the ability to get things done”—and it separates good companies (and leaders) from great ones.


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