Annabel Beerel

That Enduring Question of How to Educate Leaders

by Annabel Beerel, Ph.D.


Recently, while clearing out some neglected file cabinets, I came across my MBA course folders from 1983. This brought back many fond memories. As I recall, there were one hundred and sixty students in the class of 1983, of which less than twenty were women. How times have changed! And yet – have they?

As I delved into the files, I was astounded at what was revealed in those ear-marked pages. In 1983/4, we took courses in finance, entrepreneurship, leadership and change, strategy and strategic thinking, strategic planning, teamwork and relationships (E.I. was just coming in vogue then), presentation skills, communication skills, dealing with gender, negotiation strategies, marketing management, systems and I.T., … and the list goes on. We had to do a gazillion presentations and our presentation skills’ class was three credits, which we had to pass. Presentations were video-taped and critiqued by classmates and teacher panels. There is no learning as powerful as seeing how poorly one stands, speaks, and gestures, let alone tries to convey material from personnel strategies to a funding analysis to support a new initiative!

Flipping through memory lane, what astounded me was that business students, thirty-four years ago, we were being taught essentially the same curriculum offered in most MBA and executive education programs today. By contrast, our course placed a great deal of emphasis on presence and communication – a sadly lacking ingredient of many contemporary courses. Today there might be new class titles to make programs appear cutting edge, but in reality, rarely is anything new. Business students are by and large taught the same things we were taught or talking about in 1983 and 1984.

As someone, who for the past thirty years has been engaged in executive teaching and coaching, I am frequently asked to review or promote certain books to be used in my classes and seminars. New book editions update case studies, have many more pictures, use big letters, provide copies of powerpoints that summarize lectures, and now provide website links. The general contents, however, remain the same. Regularly, I scour seminar and business and management course curricula offered by universities, colleges, and other consulting organizations. I can confirm, seldom is there anything mind-altering that is likely to generate new attitudes or new thinking.

The technology (or STEM) sector is probably the most innovative when it comes to new pedagogies and new ideas, however, even here it tends to place less emphasis on the human relationship side of being an effective manager or leader. Presentation and communication skills are certainly not high enough on their list. As someone who works a great deal with technical people, I can attest that these skills are severely wanting.

We can add one more significant factor into the mix. Many business students struggle to read comprehensively, never mind write coherently. They squirm if they are not given information in bullet form and if the material exceeds two pages.  Email and text-speak has destroyed reading and writing skills …in the highest circles it seems. Tweeting is now the order of the day to convey secret international diplomatic strategies as well as approval or disapproval for the latest reality shows.

Now, what would Einstein say? Is this not the definition of insanity? We are trying to solve twenty-first century problems at lower levels than which they present themselves. We have not managed to raise our sights to new mindsets, nor have we developed the intellectual skills needed to address the new and different world issues of our time.

Since business leaders play a huge role in politics and the economy, can we not see that this is a problem? Business managers are now literally running the country and engaging in foreign relations! Added to that, many corporations come and go at great cost to the person in the street, and the tide of disenchanted, unmotivated, and ineffective managers is on the increase.

The important question for those of us interested in developing new thought leaders is how to address this lacuna in education. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), arguably the most successful organizational psychologist of the twentieth century, and mostly known for his Hierarchy of Needs, had much to say about education in the 1960s! “What’s the use of teaching facts? Facts become obsolete so darn fast! What’s the use of teaching techniques? The techniques become obsolete so fast!”[i]  He went on to say that what we need is a new type of human being who is comfortable with change, who enjoys change, who is able to improvise, who can face with confidence and courage a situation of which he or she has absolutely no warning. Maslow tried to convince organizations to invest in self-actualizing leaders. Alas, few took him seriously enough to really make that the cornerstone of their employee development policies.

Nearly fifty years later, I wonder what Maslow would suggest. How can we develop our business managers to be more adept at improvising and dealing with change? How can we broaden and strengthen their education so that they become true leaders, self-aware, self-assured, and with a focus on wisdom?

Maybe it is time to rethink the whole business education thing and come up with something truly transformational, inspirational, and educational. Who is going to take the lead? I doubt whether it will be but a few universities and colleges. So corporations, invest now in what really matters…the minds of your people. Not their intellect, or their skills, or their behavioral responses. Their minds.

[i]  Abraham Maslow, The Farthest Reaches of Human Nature, 1971, p. 56.