Why Business Schools Sell Leadership, Not Management

Lindsey Stirling at IdeaFestival 2011. Image: Goeff Oliver Bugbee

Lindsey Stirling at IdeaFestival 2011. Image: Goeff Oliver Bugbee

Brought to my attention on Twitter by former IdeaFestival speaker Tony Wagner, "Can You Learn to Lead?" takes a somewhat skeptical view of the current interest in the subject of leadership at business schools.

"Can it," the piece asks, "be taught?"

The article faults B-schools for glossing over "management," with its accompanying academic foundation and relative rigor, in favor of coursework on leadership. In one sense I agree with the criticism. Projects rise and fall on the strength of management. It's not glamorous. It's mundane. I'm terrible at it.

Talk to any systems engineer, for example, and you'll get an earful on what it takes to pull complex projects together. "Digital Apollo" is a wonderful book about the Apollo flight computer program - and the breakthrough thinking in programming that saved the first lunar landing effort with seconds to spare. Good management equipped the lunar module with integrated circuitry - a first - and code able to handle and prioritize conflicting flight data. Though terribly primitive by today's standards, the first moon landing would not have happened without computer-aided control because the demands on pilots, even those as skilled as Armstrong and Aldrin, were simply too much.

To the extent that "leadership" is popular today, it's because as economic agents we're increasingly on our own. The implied contract between employer and employee, if it ever existed, is gone. If you attended IdeaFestival 2014 last October, you heard some sobering statistics from the author of "Ghosts of Tom Joad," Peter Van Buren, and the economist and author of "Average is Over," Tyler Cowen, about the dramatic changes in the economy over the past 30 years or so, and about a software revolution that is currently eating so many white collar and middle management positions.

To the extent that management is about efficiency, there are many people who are already running plenty lean, thank you very much.

"Leadership" today isn't just an idea sold by business schools to prospective students, but a way of thinking that assumes that self-management is the most important skill any person might cultivate. It's certainly one reason why the IdeaFestival talks so much about innovation. There may not be much any one person can do about the current jobs landscape, but being able to think one's feet is a step - pardon the pun - toward creating value and reaping the rewards.

As Cowen said last October, augmenting some technical proficiency with a rounded background in the arts and sciences might offer one a shot at creating - and managing - that better future.

Perhaps more than ever imagination precedes opportunity.

Read Can You Learn to Lead? for yourself.