Leadership : Not All MBA Programs Are Created Equal

Albert A. Vicere is executive education professor of strategic leadership at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and president of Vicere Associates, Inc., a leadership consulting firm with clients around the globe.  He is one of the country's top leadership coaches, and is the author/editor of several books including Leadership By Design, The Many Facets of Leadership and more than 80 articles on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

View his website by visiting www.vicere.com or e-mail him on a.vicere@vicere.com


There are regular cycles in the business world.  There are times of growth, times of retrenchment, and times to challenge the value of the MBA degree, long the ticket to a top leadership position in corporate America. 

The MBA is, once again under fire, and Henry Mintzberg, a noted management guru and professor at McGill University, is leading the charge.   His recent book, “Managers Not MBA’s,” reminds us of the old joke that MBA can also stand for “Master of Barely Anything.”  His sharpest criticism is that business schools have been churning out highly paid MBAs who lack experience, are therefore short on wisdom, and as a result lack leadership capability.

Mintzberg laments that most MBA’s are too inexperienced to truly understand the nuances of effective leadership.  He equates attempts to teach leadership to someone who has never experienced the responsibility to trying to teach psychology to someone who has never met another human being. 

There is a grain of truth in his critique.  MBA students are taught the technical tools of the management trade but many of them lack the wisdom of experience that helps them know when to use those tools, how to use them, and how to get others to engage in the process. 

But not all MBA programs are created equal.  Some actually are doing a pretty good job of developing leaders.  I recently had the privilege of teaching the capstone course for an Executive MBA class at my university.  The students were all gainfully employed individuals, well into their careers, and enrolled in a 22-month long MBA program that met for classes every other weekend with a couple of week-long residencies on campus thrown in.

They were engaged in a grueling experience, balancing a full-time job, their MBA program requirements and often family responsibilities on the way to their degree.  I first met them half way through their program when I engaged them in a seminar on strategic leadership.  They asked me back to lead their final classroom experience.

The students certainly had learned the tools of the management trade, but they also were in positions to immediately put those tools to work, to learn from those experiences, and to discuss what they had learned with their colleagues.  As a result, on that second encounter I found myself interacting with a group of well-informed, focused leaders. 

I asked them to share with me what they had learned about effective leadership during their MBA experience.  I encouraged them to draw not only upon the formal things they had read and discussed in the classroom, but also upon what they learned as they put their newfound knowledge and techniques to work on their jobs.  Here’s what they told me:

  • Think big picture despite the relentless pressure to focus on the short-term issues at hand.
  • Don’t go it alone, recognize that you can’t be effective unless you involve your people, look beyond yourself, listen to other opinions and ideas.
  • Build a team with diverse personalities, help them work together, have and teach patience with others who have different approaches and ideas.
  • Know your people and know yourself, give honest feedback, listen and ask for feedback.
  • Have a clear vision and strategy, ensure that everyone has a clear understanding of that vision, walk the talk.
  • Be humble but confident

That’s a pretty impressive description of effective leadership.  But then these students were a little older, a little more experienced, and in a position to give everything they were taught a real world test drive. The wisdom of their experience showed.   And that got me thinking about Professor Mintzberg’s critique. 

How should we prepare leaders for the future?  Not just in the classroom, it’s too sterile.  Not just on the job, that’s too risky.  The best approach may be to combine the two simultaneously—learning while doing and learning from doing.  By combining the best of both worlds, programs like the Executive MBA provide a stage for building well-trained, well-seasoned leaders—the type of leader that is in short supply in today’s business world.


Ó Copyright Albert Vicere 2004

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