Are Master of Business Administration Courses Setting People up to Fail in Leadership?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 22nd June 2018

I’ll admit at the outset to having, to some extent, a vested interest in opposing the resurgence of the Master of Business Administration (MBA). I work for a leadership development organisation and we offer under and postgraduate programmes that effectively compete with the sort of programme that many business schools deliver. However, I will try, as I always do, to remain reasonably objective and factual during this article, we’ll see how that works out. It may not last.

The origins of MBA

Admin courses set up to fail leaders

Let’s start with the origins and purpose of an MBA. The whole idea and much of the design and content of a Master’s degree in Business Administration flourished in the USA: hence the course title.

In the UK, we use the term ‘business administration’ to mean something rather different, but in the USA it is seen as the subject area of ‘running an organisation’. The way the programme is positioned by many UK business schools is to imply that it is a passport to the senior management team or into a career in consultancy.

I suggest that its popularity among the upwardly mobile UK population, especially in the corporate world, has much more to do with this than it does with any desire to learn how to lead or to develop a deep understanding of the principles of strategic organisational management or development.

Leaders should be motivated by more than money and status

Many business schools promote their MBA based on the ‘uplift’ it is likely to provide salary levels and highlight the stellar careers enjoyed by some of their alumni. Often they cite league tables comparing their alumni with those of other institutions.

Fair enough, you might say, I guess they would. But is that the primary motivation we want our future leadership contingent to have? A sense of self-importance, massive salary expectation and ego-fulfilment the thing we most want to develop in our future leaders?

Is it possible that this is part of the very root-cause of our poor performance in employee engagement, productivity, and trust in our leaders?

Moreover, given the financial challenges facing many of our universities, is their drive to fill places on these very lucrative programmes to pay for infrastructure and maintain the estate helping us as a nation? I would suggest not.

We have some of the world’s top-rated universities and have been at the forefront of academia for centuries, yet we find ourselves in a downward spiral as a nation economically and politically, with a population that has less confidence and trust in their ‘bosses’ than at any time in modern history.

A large proportion of employers report that they have significant difficulties recruiting and retaining the talent and skills that they need. Youth unemployment is a major challenge, standards of literacy and numeracy are a big headache and we lag behind many, many competing countries in terms of our productivity, innovation, engagement, and level of service.

On the other hand, a greater proportion of our school-leavers progress to university than at any time in our history and we churn out thousands of graduates and postgraduates in business or management every year.

Something just doesn’t add up.

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An old attitude that needs to change

There are many influencing factors here and I’m not blaming business schools or the MBA for these problems. I do suggest though, that they are part of a wider problem. In the UK it seems to me that we still think in a Victorian way that management is about ‘running things’ and being a ‘boss’.

We see management as status, a desirable social standing.

Management carries so much status and such disproportionate financial rewards – a recent report indicated that the average CEO receives almost 100 times the average salary in an organisation – that it, therefore, attracts a population from a particular part of society, who are groomed for the ‘top’ and primarily interested in gaining benefits for themselves.

Their path to leadership and a senior role was often preordained by their family and education, rather than talent or aptitude. The MBA is a key piece in this wider jigsaw. It attracts people with a desire to grow their status and their wealth, develop their career and climb the ladder to success with their peer group. This seems to me to give them a sense of self-worth and self-importance without the recognition of the responsibility for the well-being of their people that must, in all conscience, come along with it.

It teaches them how to ‘administrate a business’ but, often, not how to lead one.

Are MBAs missing out on ‘soft skills’ in leadership?

Having spent decades as a CEO and also decades as a mentor to leaders at every level from the front-line to CEO and Chair, I can say that I am frequently horrified at the almost obsessive focus many MBAs have learned and developed on numbers, spreadsheets, strategic plans, marketing campaigns and all the other ‘hard-stuff’. This is rarely coupled with any understanding of the supposedly ‘soft’ need to lead the people, to inspire, to engage or to empower and support.

I would argue that it isn’t just setting those graduates up to ‘fail’, it is also setting up our organisations to lose their talent, disengage their people, underperform in innovation, a decline in productivity and get swallowed up by more progressive competitors and predatory global players. It is also setting up the UK to continue its downward spiral as a political and economic power, and perhaps widening the divide between rich and poor, management and workers.

If I had an easy answer, believe me, I’d share it.

Well, I don’t have all the answers, but perhaps it begins by recognising that being a leader is about serving and supporting your people, not ruling them. Understanding that leadership shouldn’t just be the highest paid or most important job but the one was given to those who have demonstrated the most aptitude and willingness to fulfil the role of ‘leader’. I would also suggest that most of the skills and understanding required to be a leader are actually about people.

Every really good leader I’ve worked with has recognised that human nature is the thing they needed to understand best and that the most important skills they possessed were the soft ones. Frankly, a thirteen-year-old can learn to read a spreadsheet or a set of accounts. It takes someone with a deeper humanity, greater maturity and a well of compassion and cares for their people to be a real leader and to inspire a population to be the best they can be.

I’m not sure how much time you’ll spend learning about that on your MBA.

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