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Why an MBA won’t necessarily improve your leadership skills

A CEO observes that holding an MBA was once an important box to check on the way to a successful executive career. But as we look around at what can only be described as a dearth of great leaders, she asks, where did the process go wrong?

Why an MBA won’t necessarily improve your leadership skills
[Source photo: Ekrulila/Pexels]
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For many decades, an MBA has been considered the gold standard in business and leadership education. Holding an MBA was an important box to check on the way to a successful executive career. But as we look around at what can only be described as a dearth of great leaders, what has gone wrong with the process that sees the world’s business schools turning out hundreds of thousands of MBA graduates each year?

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What an MBA can provide

There are many capabilities and skills required for successful performance at an executive level. An MBA can provide the perfect combination of ‘hard’ business skills required to navigate the demands and complexities of the modern business environment.

We all start our careers in a specific discipline—law, marketing, engineering, geology etc—in which we develop deep skills and expertise. But as we ascend through the organizational levels, our gaze needs to shift to a broader focus. It’s not enough to have been an exceptional management accountant, or even CFO. Executive life requires a rounded knowledge of all the disciplines of running a successful business.

The fundamentals of marketing, strategy, economics, finance and business law are just a few of the elements that underpin the capability and judgment required of a competent executive. This level of foundational knowledge can be attained from a high-quality MBA program.

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What an MBA can’t give you

My business partner, Martin G. Moore, often says that his MBA studies simply gave him the ability to have an intelligent conversation with experts in any particular business discipline. This perspective unlocked his judgment and experience in a way that enhanced his decision-making and executive performance.

But the reality is, it did almost nothing to improve his leadership skills. Leadership skills can’t be learned in the cloistered environment of the classroom. Sure, there are principles of good leadership that every leader needs to understand. But leadership is one of those things that can, for the most part, only be learned by doing.

Having the discipline to do the things that enable you to become more comfortable with conflict, the temperament to remain calm in pressure situations, the confidence to take decisive action in a highly ambiguous context, and the commitment to excellence that it takes to set uncompromising standards of behavior and performance—these come through self-mastery and repeated fail-and-fix cycles.

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Improved competence and judgment should be a goal, no matter what level you’re currently at. This supports any desirable leadership attributes that you might develop. For example, there’s a lot of focus on a leader’s need to demonstrate fallibility, an incredibly powerful attribute when coupled with competence. But fallibility coupled with incompetence can be disastrous.

An MBA can provide a platform of competence upon which to develop exceptional leadership capabilities.

What great leadership requires

Leadership is fundamentally about people, and great leadership requires connection. Have you heard the old cliche: Our people are our greatest asset? Well, it’s usually not true. Because of the benign neglect that leaders show their teams, people are more often the most underutilized asset an organization possesses.

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Understanding how to get the most out of people requires individual connection, and a willingness to do the hard work of leadership. This includes holding people to account for the choices they make, and the results they produce such as having a laser-like focus on value creation, a commitment to curtailing non-value-adding activity, and a constant drive for improvement of the individual and the team.

There are many mental and psychological barriers to great leadership performance, not least of which is setting aside our need to be liked and accepted by others. This hampers many leaders’ careers, as they struggle to push themselves to do the things that would most improve their team’s performance. This is why the leader’s mantra has to be: respect before popularity.

Popularity doesn’t make a difference to performance, but respect does.

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The leadership toolkit of challenging, coaching, and confronting your people is the means to execute on the many hard and soft business capabilities that you develop. Your people will never reach their peak performance on their own—even your best performers will only give 80-85% of their maximum potential on any given day.

Unless you’re committed to challenging your people, superior performance will elude you. Coaching people so that they have the support, guidance, and encouragement to produce to the best of their ability is a skill that can only come from spending quality time with the people you lead. And knowing how and when to confront your people when they don’t rise to meet your expectations has to be second nature.

These skills generally can’t be learned in an MBA program. The principles may be obvious, but the practical application is where most leaders stumble.

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How to develop your leadership potential

By all means, educate yourself. An MBA is a no-regrets move. But don’t labor under the misapprehension that you’ll automatically become a better leader.

Great leadership doesn’t come from learning alone. It comes from self-mastery, good habits, and the willingness to take personal risk in order to lift others up. Overcoming the built-in impediments that prevent us from improving our leadership performance is unlikely to happen in the classroom.


Emma Green is the CEO and Co-Founder of the leadership development business, Your CEO Mentor. She also produces the chart-topping No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast.

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