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What an MBA Program Won’t Teach You About Leadership

By Rich Wellins, Ph.D.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D.

This spring, tens of thousands of students will graduate with MBA degrees. Given the hard work and large sums of money they are likely to have invested (up to $100,000 or more at some elite universities) students completing their degrees should be proud of their accomplishment.

Will the hard work and expense pay off? Research shows that it often does. On average, MBAs earn about 36 percent more than those with bachelor-level business degrees. Also, MBAs are often recruited into leadership positions and get opportunities for career advancement that may not be open to others.

But does an MBA degree make a difference when it comes to leadership capability?

As part of our High-Resolution Leadership research, for which we evaluated assessment data from 15,000 leaders across 300 companies and 18 countries, we compared the performance of those with undergraduate business degrees and MBA degree-holders against a set of critical leader skills.

We found that there were significant difference between the two groups. As shown below, MBAs rated higher in financial acumen, business savvy, and establishing strategic direction—skills that are commonly emphasized and developed in most MBA programs. On the other hand, MBAs were lower than undergraduate degree-holders in coaching and developing others, driving for results, and selling the vision.  The conclusion to be drawn from this is that while an MBA program can strengthen many important leadership skills, it won’t necessarily produce strength in all of the skills leaders need to be successful.
MBA Compared to Undergraduate Degree

While a business degree, even an advanced business degree (an MBA) will still leave some leaders with important skill gaps, are there other degrees that are better at preparing leaders? To answer this question, we looked at assessment results across eight target leadership skills from leaders who held one of seven different degrees. In addition to leaders with a business degree, we also identified those who had a degree in engineering, law, humanities, information technology (IT), natural sciences, or social sciences.

The outcome, as shown in the graphic below, was somewhat surprising.
Top and Bottom Educational Degrees

Leaders with business degrees were strong in five of the eight leadership skills. But so too were those leaders with humanities degrees! What’s more, the leaders with the humanities degrees were stronger than those with business degrees in three of the skills: compelling communication, driving for results, and inspiring excellence.

So, what’s the takeaway from this finding? That those individuals considering getting an MBA to help advance their leadership careers should instead go back to school to study ancient languages and philosophy? Well, not exactly.

While the leaders with business degrees weren’t strong across the board, they weren’t weak in any of the skill areas. Humanities degree-holders, meanwhile, were weak in financial acumen and business savvy—both of which are extremely important for leaders.

Better, we think, that MBAs (and their employers) recognize that while their degree program helped them develop a strong base of critical leadership skills, it amounted to an incomplete education. The skills where business degree-holders weren’t strong—compelling communication, driving for results, and inspiring excellence—are all closely aligned with the highly developable interaction skills imparted by leadership development programs, such as those that feature courses from DDI’s Interaction Management® system.

Organizations that hire MBAs shouldn’t exempt their leaders from going through a foundational leadership development program. Nor should MBAs themselves pass up the opportunity to participate in such a program or to continually seek out opportunities to apply and strengthen their interaction skills.

Rich Wellins, Ph.D., is senior vice president at DDI and coauthor, with Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D., of Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others. He is passionate about helping organizations employ alignment and analytics to realize the potential of their leadership capability. He also has a passion for seeking out exceptional restaurants.

Posted: 16 May, 2016,

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