Do We Learn What Makes Leaders at HBS?

We talk a lot about leadership at HBS, but sometimes I wonder if we’re using a word we don’t understand very well.

A typical class: An instructor asks what made Martin Luther King a leader. We fill the board with phrases like possessed a vision; great communicator; capable of building coalitions; and so on.
When the board is filled from top to bottom there’s a feeling the secret has been unlocked. We’ve done it! We’ve understood what made Dr. King a leader.

But have we?
I worry when this list could as accurately describe history’s most evil figures as well as its greatest heroes. Historians have written volumes about Hitler’s strength as a communicator; his ability to construct a compelling vision; his skill at building coalitions and so on. One can use this same list-the list that supposedly unlocked the essence of Dr. King’s “leadership”-to accurately describe countless tyrants and other despicable characters.

So have we understood what made Dr. King a leader?
I think not.

To describe Dr. King using a list that could simultaneously describe Adolf Hitler has completely missed what made Martin Luther King a leader. What is it? It is that Dr. King advanced a good purpose. Mankind was better off as a result of his actions. And when we talk of leaders like Nelson Mandela and even the special teacher at nursery school-it is only because their actions contributed positively to the human condition that they are so celebrated. Take this truth away and suddenly you have not King but Stalin.

So we can create volumes of lists, but unless we realize that pursuing a good purpose stands as the heart of the matter then we have failed. At best our blackboards describe characteristics of a leader that are necessary, but woefully insufficient.

Ron Heifetz, a Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has become famous for writing about leadership as an action that neccessarily advances the human condition. His book Leadership Without Easy Answers-far and away the best thinking on leadership-details this view.
Now some might say, isn’t it just the case that there are good leaders and bad leaders? Possibly-except our usage of the word leader betrays a different reality. Heifetz raises this contradiction. When we say things like we want to create young leaders; there is a lack of leadership in our country; we need more leadership qualities-we are ascribing a normative definition to leadership. We do mean that we need more Dr. Kings, and not more Hitlers.

Yet if we do believe that doing good is essential, why doesn’t the teaching of leadership highlight this vital point?

If there’s an explanation, it is that teaching leadership is vastly harder than we think. It’s not easy to teach how to think about what good means. Many professors who teach leadership don’t feel comfortable discussing these types of issues. The result? We spend great amounts of time discussing long lists of skills like how to work better in teams, and the most important questions of leadership get pushed aside. What is the good purpose? How does one contribute positively to society? What society? And by whose standards?

Hard questions. That’s precisely the point. Being a leader is rare and difficult. Many of us won’t make it. But it starts as a process of struggling with these questions. But these hard questions are for philosophers, some will say. They couldn’t be more wrong. And the mindset that gives these harder sorts of questions to philosophers in academic towers and gives the easier questions of building a team to everyone else is an enormously dangerous one. By separating the idea of a leader from the idea of a moral leader-especially when teaching young professionals at Harvard-you perpetuate a world where the people most likely to find themselves in positions where leadership is required are least prepared for it. It’s like training someone to use a weapon and not discussing how they know what it should be used for.

So what does this mean for Harvard Business School?
If we agree that pursuing good is essential for a leader, let’s make this omnipresent in peoples’ minds and start addressing the hard questions. Perhaps this would be best accomplished through a required course in business ethics taught by Professors with backgrounds in philosophy or law. In it we should study decision makers who had to decide what “the right thing” was. We should have 10 of these sorts of discussions for every one we have on building teams.

And if we can’t do this let’s be candid and say it. “Yes, we believe that doing good is the defining quality of a leader, but we’re not going to discuss that here. Our classes will focus on general skills like being a better communicator-an important skill but we make no pretense that we’re building leaders.”

By my reading, however, HBS’ mission-to develop outstanding business leaders who contribute to the well being of society-compels the school to reject this latter option. Its mission mandates the school to teach more than just the long lists of skills I mentioned at the beginning.
Yet if the school believes that an HBS “leader” must pursue good, how can it expect to achieve this mission without stressing this point about leadership? How can HBS expect to create this kind of person if students are never taught how to think about what contributing to the well being of society means?

My one sentence message: When we discuss what it means to be a leader in our LEAD classes and elsewhere-we must stress that the indispensable criteria for being a leader is advancing something good. If we and our professors recognized this, perhaps we could get on to the difficult work that inevitably surrounds figuring out what “the good” is, rather than simply discussing the easier (though necessary, I grant) skills of building a team.
That’s what makes a leader.