"It is so obvious that something big has failed," said the dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, Angel Cabrera. "We cannot say, ‘Well, it wasn't our fault' when there is such a systemic, widespread failure of leadership." Dr. Cabrera is making the case for revising the curricula of business schools since to some, like him, as well as others quoted in a New York Times article1, it is obvious that schools prepare students to manage, but not to lead. Ethics and responsibility need to be instilled. For example, take the concept of risk management. The question should not be how much risk is feasible, but rather how much risk is ethical, especially in the case that our projections are wrong. That is the domain of leadership, since so much of leadership is about doing what is right for the organization and its stakeholders.
Business school reform may come, but it will not be soon enough for the up-and-coming generation of MBA-equipped managers already in the field. Something is needed now and the good news is that the current economic crisis is the optimal time to implement leadership development initiatives. Skeptics will push back with issues related to two issues: time and funding. Let's address each.
The time is now. Crises should provide a desire for individual initiative. The best leadership development programs are those that accelerate the experience of leading others for intended results. Managers can replicate the experience by providing their high-potentials with opportunities to receive cross-functional training as well as to take on new assignments outside of their individual specialties. If the manager coaches his or her people through these experiences, he or she is providing a hands-on leadership experience.
The cost is variable. Many companies are employing a "do not waste this crisis" imperative to reduce costs, but such a mantra could also be applied to investing in the future. While the ideal leadership development programs combine internal efforts at a corporate university with external offerings at business schools, it is possible to either scale back the spending, or employ one or the other. If formal programs are not feasible, then organizations can provide coaching services.
There is a third issue, and rather than an obstacle it is an opportunity: innovation. History teaches us that organizations that stand the test of time are those that adapt. Creativity is essential and should not be considered an expense. So consider the possibility of bringing back retired executives to mentor and coach next-generation leaders. These veterans have survived similar crises and undoubtedly would be pleased to share their wisdom.
Some organizations, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal,2 are already seeing the benefit of leadership development efforts. While training budgets have been cut, companies such as Philips Electronics NA, Estee Lauder Cos., and Canon USA are continuing their leadership development efforts with either internal or external offerings. These companies and others are investing in grooming the next generation of leaders because they realize that the future of business depends on having talented and tested leaders in place.
There is another reason to invest in leadership development. Companies that invest in their people during hard times may be more likely to retain them when good times return. How much better will it be to have a new generation of leaders who have been tempered and wizened by tough times already in place to take the organization forward? These will be leaders who have figured out how to help the organization survive and many will have the drive to help it thrive. Lose them at your peril. Invest now in leadership development.
1 Kelley Holland, "Is It Time to Retrain B-Schools?" New York Times, March 14, 2009,
2 Dana Mattioli, "Despite Cutbacks, Firms Invest in Developing Leaders," Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2009, https://www.thepartnershipinc.org/pdf/WSJarticle021009.pdf.