Humble leadership: a new lesson for MBA students

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For years bureaucratic forms of leadership that relied on certainty, decisiveness and the power of position have prevailed. Many MBA programmes of the 1970s and 1980s even perpetuated this approach.

But tomorrow’s leaders — and today’s MBA students — must learn something new: how leaders use their positions to orchestrate and facilitate the flow of ideas and boost employee curiosity.

This, not authority or hierarchy, will help create an appetite for experimentation and a workforce ready to try new things.

This is a departure. As I explain in my book Alive at Work, today’s leaders are no longer in the best position to tell others what to do. Instead, they need help from those working on the ground to provide insight about day-to-day activities. Leaders help set the vision and the direction, while employees experiment with and develop practical new approaches to make the organisation work better.

So for true power, leaders need to listen and give others a chance to explore, experiment and improve things without fear of reprisal.

This works within small teams, larger departments and at the organisational level, so MBAs can start small, develop their style of serving the employees who do the work and hone their skills as they progress.

Relying on a position of power and hierarchy to get work done results in anxiety and low psychological safety — the degree to which people feel they can take risks without fear of recrimination — which quickly stifles employees’ natural drive to experiment and learn. Top-down orders from arrogant MBAs kill curiosity.

Instead, leaders should engender employee enthusiasm about experimenting and learning. Ironically, humble leadership works not by demanding perfection, but its opposite — by showing that humans are never perfect and must explore, fail and practice in order to learn and improve.

Get this right, and you will have a workforce where people think like owners, and are willing to work hard and work smart to make the organisation’s vision become reality.

In a fast-changing world, agility is critical for long-lasting organisational success. If MBAs can learn the route to humble leadership, this will be a huge advantage in their careers and will actively help them to achieve corporate success.

The business schools that ultimately produce these graduates must act as guides on this journey. This responsibility is a real one, but so too is the opportunity that accompanies it.

Many MBA students will go on to hold leadership positions. They will take with them the lessons learnt during their time at business school. I will be teaching MBA students at London Business School about the power of humble leadership as part of a new elective, on employee engagement and positive psychology.

A fully-rounded business education must encompass different approaches and understandings of leadership. Teaching MBAs how to gain and retain power is not enough to get the best ideas and motivation of teams; neither is defining effective business practice as a top-down, one-way transaction.

Instead, business schools should arm their graduates with the confidence to fail and the self-assuredness to encourage those they lead to do so too. Either learn how to fail, or fail to learn. Only then can employee creativity, experimentation and innovation be fully unleashed.

The writer is a professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School and author of ‘Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do’

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