What Kind of Leadership Are You Selling?

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022
By Giselle Weybrecht
Photo by iStock/Dgwildlife
It’s not enough for your business school to feature leadership in your marketing—you must define, teach, and model great leadership for your students.
  • Business schools use the term leader many times in their sustainability reports, but few clearly define what leadership means to them.
  • The reports that do not mention the word leadership at all often convey the most impressive messages about responsible management.
  • Business schools should not just use leadership as a selling point to attract students. They must make their approach to teaching leadership evident in everything they do.


There has been plenty written about what leadership is and what it is not. But while we know a lot about how the business sector views leadership, what does leadership mean to business schools more specifically?

To explore this further, I consulted the sustainability reports that 200 global business schools submitted to the Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative in the past year. I searched each report for some form of the word leader, particularly in relation to students.

I was wondering how potential students and other interested stakeholders might view these descriptions of leadership. What kind of leadership are schools selling? Are all business schools selling the same kind of leadership? Is one type of leadership better or more important? Are business schools using the term as a marketing strategy, or do they have curricula to support it?

How Is Leadership Defined?

As I began this project, I quickly discovered that business schools use some form of the word lead a lot—some 40-page reports mention it up to 200 times! One school has a “leadership development programme that empowered leadership capabilities attended by 215 leaders,” while another is “cultivating leading business leaders to lead.”

By the time they have accepted students into their programs, business schools have already labeled those students as leaders—or, more cautiously, as future leaders. Many schools highlight a wide range of leadership courses in their reports and other marketing. They emphasize the fact that the courses they offer are taught by leaders and based on leading research. They also provide a range of related activities, events, and internships. They invite guest speakers, whom they also describe as leaders. But very few describe the kind of leadership they strive to teach.

Is one type of leadership better or more important? Are business schools using the term as a marketing strategy, or do they have curricula to support it?

The reports give leadership two distinct, but not always related, meanings. On the one hand, schools describe leadership as the act of leading people or organizations. They fill the pages of their reports with pictures of students wearing dark suits and listening to keynote speakers wearing similar dark suits; this is true regardless of the country in which the photos are taken. Most often, however, speakers are presented as leaders based on their job titles, not necessarily on their actions or achievements.

On the other hand, schools also describe a leader as someone who has an impact on society. However, they often do not clarify whether this impact is negative or positive, and if it is positive, for whom? For employees, for customers, for supply chains, for the planet? Is the leadership business schools are selling the kind the business sector and the world needs?

What Kind of Leaders Are Schools Preparing?

Not surprisingly, most business schools claim to prepare global leaders. Fifty percent of the reports I read also use the term responsible leaders, and 20 percent note that they are training ethical leaders. Many of the reports focus on values-driven and purpose-led leaders. But, once again, very few define responsible leadership or mention what values or purpose leaders should espouse.

What I found troublesome was that the reports assume that these terms are positive without further clarification. But I suspect that if you were to ask the CEOs of highly polluting companies whether they think of themselves as responsible, ethical, and values-driven, they would likely say yes. Whether certain values are positive or negative depends entirely on how leaders apply those values in the real world.

According to the reports, business schools also are training future leaders to be mindful, reflective, conscious, authentic, and empathetic. Two of the reports mention good and sound leaders (both rather generic adjectives that seem to set a low bar). Other terms they used include thought, agile, transformative, solution-oriented, innovative, effective, and strategic.

What Does This Mean?

While the term leader is ever-present but largely undefined in most reports, a few schools do provide additional information. For example, in its report, EGADE Business School at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico defines purposeful leadership as “born from the willingness to serve and a mindset that not only recognises human dignity but also comprehends human interconnection with its environment.” And according to its report, the Turku School of Economics at the University of Turku in Finland prepares responsible leaders by helping them develop foresight, which the school defines as “the perceiving and analysis of the alternative futures and the choices which are related to them.” 

If you were to ask the CEOs of highly polluting companies whether they think of themselves as responsible, ethical, and values-driven, they would likely say yes.

Nine percent of the reports don’t mention the term leader at all. Whether that is deliberate or an oversight is not clear. What I found interesting was that these reports are no less impressive than those that do feature the term—some, perhaps even more so.

For instance, Karlstad Business School in Sweden defines a responsible professional as “a person who makes an impact in society through knowledge, shared thoughts, and actions, with consideration given to following sustainable social, environmental and economic values.” The school’s motto is, “Knowledge is worth nothing without the ability to use it.” To reinforce that idea, Karlstad Business School emphasizes the fact that it teaches students skills in communication, critical thinking, and teamwork.

How Can Business Schools Lead?

Based on this analysis, I believe there are four ways that business schools can rethink their approach to communicating the idea of leadership. The objective of the suggestions below is to provide students with a clearer idea of what it means to be a great leader:  

Expand your definition of what a leader looks like. The studies and articles outlining what makes a good leader are not only mind-bogglingly numerous, but also often contradictory. Moreover, their findings often focus on leadership traits relevant to the past and present, not the future. This makes their use in business curricula questionable.

For example, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals emphasize the need for multistakeholder partnership. Yet, almost none of the reports mention developing collaborative or even community-minded leaders. One even mentions the need to develop top-down leaders! Many don’t mention the SDGs at all.

It isn’t just the skills, but also traits of great leaders that are changing. For example, the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck University of London mentions the importance of developing cross-cultural leadership, in part through the work of its Centre for Neurodiversity at Work. Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business in Ithaca, New York, is educating inclusive leaders with courses focused on disability inclusion in the workplace, campus events focused on welcoming people of all abilities, and a center devoted to neurodiversity.

Be respectful of different forms of leadership. While I was hoping to learn how different cultures viewed leadership in different ways, the reports instead lay out a standard, well-established view of leadership. Very few reports diverge from this view.

One exception was the report from the Wellington School of Business and Government at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In it, the school uses the term collaborative leadership, which focuses on the quadruple bottom line that considers economic, social, environmental, and cultural factors. In an article on the school’s website, lecturer Ben Walker explains that the Wellington School draws heavily from the ideals of Māori culture and business in its approach to teaching leadership.

“Whereas conventional companies prioritize profit, for Māori (and indeed Indigenous businesses around the world), making money is usually seen as a steppingstone to more valued destinations: community well-being, a political voice, and environmental sustainability,” Walker writes. He adds that Māori business owners “tend to take a much longer-term perspective when making important decisions” because they are encouraged “to think and act not as individuals, but as links in the chain between past ancestors and future generations.”

Reflect these types of leadership in your curriculum. How you describe leaders in your school’s marketing materials will determine the kind of students you attract. But how your school presents leadership throughout its curriculum will determine the kind of leaders students become.

Therefore, leadership can’t just be a selling point to attract students. You must make your approach to teaching leadership evident in everything you do—it must be reflected consistently in your curriculum and case studies, lecture topics, choice of guest speakers, and events.

For example, the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in Canada holds an annual conference where students learn to appreciate the importance of character and candor in business leaders. Panels are filled with nontraditional leaders from fields such as social justice and sports—for instance, in 2018, the school featured retired ice dancers and Olympic medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Personally, I have found that views shared by such unconventional leaders resonate with me more than those shared by individuals with more traditional business backgrounds.

Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley outlines four Defining Leadership Principles: to create students who care about becoming great business leaders, who go beyond themselves, who are confident without having an attitude, and who question the status quo. Its report notes that 75 percent of its students cite these leadership principles as one of the main reasons they chose Haas. In its interviews of prospective students, the school also includes this question relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion: “Can you please describe any experience you have in the area of DEI, whether in the workplace or through community organizations, that will enhance your contributions to the Berkeley Haas Community?”

How you describe leaders in marketing materials will determine the kind of students you attract. How your school presents leadership throughout its curriculum will determine the kind of leaders students become.

Ultimately, expect that students will decide for you. Whether you succeed in preparing students to be the leaders described in your reports will be evident in the way your students contribute to their communities. For instance, when a student at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, could not find any ethnic-focused business clubs on campus, he started his own. The club, called Edge, is focused on fostering student success and increasing diversity at reputable organizations.

As the University of Sydney tells its students during its Leading and Influencing in Business course: “Change can start small, but it has to start with you.”

Are You Teaching Tomorrow’s Leaders?

By the end of this exercise, I was left with more questions than answers. Are business schools training students to become leaders by today’s standards, or tomorrow’s? Why is diversity, equity, and inclusion yet to make the jump from operations to curricula at many business schools? Why are so many faculty still reluctant to teach sustainability topics? Given that reluctance, can faculty truly say their students are ready to lead?

Finally, do we really need more global leaders? Or do we need more leaders who are inspiring and skilled at leading change? Who are creative, curious, imaginative, or qualitative? None of these terms come up in the reports.

Business schools have a responsibility not only to prepare students for the future, but also to shape what future leaders will look like. In addition, they should ensure that their definitions of leadership focus on social impact.

In the future, it is likely that your business school will be judged not by the graduates’ salaries or job titles, but by the impact of your graduates on the world. Many of your students will become leaders regardless of what you teach them, but you have a responsibility, as do they, to lead in a direction that matters.

For more on how business schools are embedding sustainability, follow Giselle’s List, a weekly curated list of ideas and resources. 

Giselle Weybrecht
Author, Advisor, and Speaker, Sustainability and Business
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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