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Leading from within

Leadership is at the heart of the Cambridge MBA – so why won’t you find one central leadership course in the timetable?

four people working together in a small business office

Leadership is under the spotlight as perhaps never before. Americans are contemplating what the future will bring under a controversial new leader, and both Great Britain and Europe are grappling with what leadership means in a largely unforeseen new era. More than ever, business schools need to help their MBA candidates reflect deeply on what it means to be a leader.

This process of reflection, combined with many opportunities to practice the skills of leadership, runs through many aspects of the Cambridge MBA, says Director of the MBA programme, Dr Jane Davies:

“We have designed the curriculum to give opportunities at many points throughout the MBA year to develop, practice and apply leadership skills and attributes. Both being a collaborative team member and being a responsible team leader require distinct skill sets. We study high performance teams and bring in senior figures from business and industry to share their leadership experience and ‘tips from the top’. And our approach is designed to work for you whether you are contemplating a corporate career or becoming an entrepreneur.”

The process of reflection on what it means to be a leader begins even before the candidate starts the programme. The interview process probes candidates’ understanding of teamwork and taking on multiple roles within a team (sometimes the leader, sometimes the led).

These skills come into focus sharply when candidates embark on the two main MBA projects (Cambridge Venture Project; Global Consulting Project). Do they have the maturity, self-awareness, and the skill-set, to morph successfully between roles on teams? This is vital preparation for the modern workplace, says Dr Keith Goodall who teaches the leadership elements of the Management Praxis course:

“On the Praxis course the versions of leadership that we emphasise move us away from the idea of the lone hero with extraordinary talents single-handedly driving the organisation forward. This style of leadership has been (and still is) promoted in popular management literature: partly because it is an easier and neater story to tell than the often messy reality of how leadership is done. However, many organisations, dealing with complex technical tasks in fast-moving environments, have become interested in very different leadership styles.

“On the course we talk about emergent leadership, for example, where someone briefly stands out from the team and influences its direction, then is happy to revert to being a team member. Some high-tech companies actively look for people who are comfortable both directing and following in this way. They try to screen out applicants who need to be constantly in charge.”

Candidates also get access to an impressive roster of senior leaders through the MBA’s Leadership in Action series of talks, which gives them vital exposure to a deep pool of world-class business leaders. Jane says:

“They talk about their experience of leadership and give great examples of how they managed to bring an organisation with them. These are very concrete examples from influential leaders who are valuable role models for the candidates as they develop their own leadership skills.” (Students get to continue these discussions over dinner in smaller groups after a lecture, which allows for much deeper exchanges.)

The listening and reflecting aspect of the programme is balanced with many opportunities for students to practice the art of leadership. The Management Praxis course and two major projects offer time and space to experiment with team building and team leading. There are also numerous opportunities outside of the curriculum, says Jane:

“They can be an elected student rep, take on a role at their College, become a sports captain, become involved with the Women’s Leadership Initiative, organise a TEDex talk or a conference. Cambridge offers a multitude of opportunities like this, which are great ways to hone leadership skills, and we encourage and support students to take advantage of them.”

Learning from the experience of high performing teams working in pressured circumstances is an important facet of the Cambridge approach and for this, the School turns to Professor Mark de Rond, putting his experience of living with and studying high performers at the disposal of candidates. Professor in Strategy and Organisation, Mark has recently won the School’s Research Impact Award for the real-world impact of his research into military surgeons in Afghanistan, a Formula 1 racing company, elite rowers, comedians, finance and law firms.

Drawing on his many years of observing leaders and their teams, Mark helps candidates work through all aspects of leadership at a deep level, team selection and empowerment, psychological safety, negotiation skills, purpose, harmony and difficult conversations. All issues that will come up in their future working – and personal – lives:

“Candidates walk away with a really valuable set of tools in their pocket. I help them to work through real cases that I have first-hand experience of – these are not theoretical cases. They develop vital skills of how to pre-empt conflict, create psychologically safe teams, create purpose, give feedback. Many people, even at very senior levels in organisations don’t have these skills, and it’s our aim to make sure every candidate leaves with an excellent grounding in them. These are also life-skills which can be used with family and friends so they are valuable all round for the MBA student.”

So while you won’t find a distinct leadership course, leadership and issues surrounding it are very much at the core of the student experience on the Cambridge MBA. And it is this awareness of what it takes to make an effective leader, which makes Cambridge MBA students equipped to succeed in the workplace.