“Midlevel Officers Show Enterprise, Helping U.S. Reduce Violence in Iraq.”

Headline in Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2007

The headline in this morning’s newspaper brought to mind a large reception recently at which I was cornered by a manager at a company that recruits at B-schools. He had listened to my remarks to a large group of prospective applicants—customarily, I talk about Darden’s mission (“…to develop leaders in the world of practical affairs”) and educational programs (“high touch, high tone, high octane.”) He said, “All this talk about Darden preparing leaders is wrong. When I recruit MBA graduates, I’m looking for team-players. We don’t need leaders at the entry-level, we need followers. You aren’t serving the business profession with all this leadership nonsense.” The criticism is nothing new: it has been claimed that B-schools warp their students’ expectations and produce people who want to be CEOs right away. There may be a few students who really want to go from corporal to general in one step like Napoleon, but most of Darden’s MBA students are wise enough to realize that one is not granted leadership, one earns it. More generally, the criticism of B-schools reflects a misunderstanding about how one leads, and where.

The Journal article reported that junior and mid-level U.S. officers serving in Iraq have taken the initiative to engage in outreach to sheiks of warring Sunni and Shiite tribes. The effect has been to reduce the terrorist activity and perhaps lay the foundation for political stability. The reason this is front-page news is that the military is (stereotypically) viewed as among the most hierarchical of organizations. Yet the junior officers did not wait for the senior diplomats and generals to contact their counterparts and for the results to trickle down the ranks of both sides. The people at the front lines saw opportunities and harvested them. Now, here’s the test: were these junior officers “leading”?

Yes. Leaders are good at recognizing problems and opportunities, shaping a vision and strategy, reading the social environment, communicating well, enlisting others—and especially, leaders have a bias for action. You don’t need to be a general or CEO to “lead.” You can lead from where you are. The failure to get this is at the core of the recruiter’s misunderstanding. A leader usually is a team-player. Martinets and autocrats need not apply. One size of leadership does not fit all. In reality, leaders come in many shapes and sizes. Howard Gardner has suggested a wide range of leadership types, including thought-leaders, moral leaders, and political leaders. In all probability, a vibrant organization includes all of these.

Ten years ago, Mark Eaker, Ed Freeman, Robert Spekman, Elizabeth Teisberg, and I published a book ((The book, The Portable MBA (4th ed., Wiley) was revised in 2002 and includes our colleague, S. Venkataraman, among the co-authors.))in which we argued for the virtue of leading from where you are. To organize one’s career around this concept means that you will likely focus less on linear progression and more on mastery and impact. You will stay at the top of your game throughout your career by emphasizing learning, rather than knowing; then you will focus on teaching, coaching, and shaping strategic vision with others; finally, you are likely to use technology to involve others. I see the footprints of this in reports about junior officers and noncoms in Iraq and Afghanistan. My visits to profitable and rapidly-growing firms such as Google, Goldman Sachs, and Infosys reveal these attributes. And my conversations with current MBA students suggest a strong desire to work in this way.

Society should expect something more from high-end B-schools than simply to train corporate drones. I have argued in my postings that the availability of able leadership is the limiting factor in sustaining good growth (of companies and whole economies) for extended periods. On the other hand, there is no shortage of followers in the world. By and large, companies have plenty of followers, people waiting to be told what to do. Unfortunately, hiring more followers may be politically safe. The problem with that strategy usually shows up in the faltering operating performance of the company: lack of agility; failure to innovate; inability to blow the whistle on inept or corrupt business practices; and so on. This is a problem that leadership corrects. From this standpoint, I’m happy to have Darden emphasize leadership development in addition to mastery of a solid MBA curriculum.

p.s. Darden welcomes applications from veterans of the armed forces of the U.S. and other countries. It seems that many countries now advocate a doctrine of front-line leadership initiative. Such training and experience is solid grounding for the kind of leadership business needs.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 12/29/2007 02:35:13 PM