MBA Programs Nurture the Human Side of Leadership

Employers nudge business schools to focus on social and emotional skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence

Christian Dummett, executive director of the London Business School Career Center, has noticed a growing demand in companies recently for empathetic leaders who can motivate employees, promote wellbeing and diversity and inclusion.

And coronavirus has underscored the need for these enlightened leadership skills. “The pandemic and subsequent increase in remote working has required leaders to flex their style to meet team members where they are in terms of circumstance, motivation and wellbeing,” says Dummett. “There is an increasing view that empathetic and forward-thinking leaders are more effective in getting the best out of their employees.”

Mental health costs employers dearly, and poor management can impair performance. So there is a strong business case for human-centered leadership. “Empathetic leaders who treat their employees with respect and dignity not only attract top talent, but also succeed in retaining them in the long-term,” Dummett points out.

However, some industry practitioners say that MBA programs focus too little on the behavioral side of leadership. What role do business schools play in training the next generation of well-rounded leaders?

Dummett insists that academic institutions take their social responsibility seriously. At LBS, MBA students use a 360-degree feedback tool and complete a personality profile to identify their own leadership style, strengths and development areas at the beginning of the program. They then set themselves leadership development objectives throughout the MBA, and experiment and challenge themselves to develop their capabilities.

“Experiential learning activities, individual coaching and club leadership opportunities help our students to develop the ‘soft’ leadership skills, such as social and emotional intelligence, that are needed for global business success,” says Dummett.

How MBAs can become a driving force for positive change

Ricard Serlavós, a lecturer at the Department of People Management and Organization at ESADE Business School in Spain, says many institutions have always placed a special emphasis on the human face of leadership. The best demonstration of the change that is taking place in the sector is the modification of the evaluation criteria used by the accreditation agencies, AACSB and EQUIS, says Serlavós.

“Much has been written about the responsibility of business schools in shaping managerial mindsets that led to the 2008 financial crisis,” he says. “I believe and trust that the industry has learned its lesson. Its future survival will depend on it.”

ESADE has developed its MBA curriculum to empower students to become a driving force for positive change in business and wider society. It seeks to develop critical competencies such as collaborative leadership, critical thinking, creativity and communication skills.

This focus is driven in part by employer demand. For some time now, Serlavós says that companies have been striving to promote the wellbeing of workers and creating active policies for managing diversity.

“Multiple studies reveal that the main cause of voluntary departure from an organization is the abrasive or toxic profile of the immediate boss,” he says, adding that temporary leave due to mental illness has grown very significantly in recent years.

“The role of managers in the creation of work environments that stimulate participation, initiative, a sense of purpose and effective contribution is absolutely fundamental,” Serlavós says.

How MBA programs are nurturing social and emotional skills

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business is another institution that’s seeking to nurture social and emotional skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence.

Mary Gentile is director of Giving Voice to Values, a curriculum that promotes values-driven leadership at the US institution. The professor of practice outlines the most effective teaching methods for developing these skills, including rehearsal and peer coaching.

“Giving Voice To Values provides opportunities for students to practice action-planning for values-driven leadership,” she says. “Students normalize this sort of behavior; they build a ‘moral muscle memory’ for acting in situations where they failed to recognize the values conflicts.”

Students are presented with scenarios where the case study protagonist has already decided what the “right” thing to do is. Participants then script and plan for an effective way to engage and persuade people. “They have to understand the perceived stakes and risks and motivations of their audience and frame their approach accordingly,” says Gentile.

Some schools stress a trade-off in balancing the demand for social and emotional abilities alongside the need for traditional “hard” skills such as finance. However, she says the Giving Voice To Values curriculum is included in core courses such as finance, accounting and operations.

Instead of being side-lined as an elective, values-driven leadership should be embedded throughout the syllabus, she suggests. “It will not be effective to simply add an attention to emotional intelligence and values to an already crowded curriculum and to ask faculty who are experts in finance or marketing to teach psychology,” says Gentile.

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