Are Colleges Doing a Good Job Preparing Leaders?

The following business leaders did NOT attend or complete college: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, John Mackey (Whole Foods), Anna Wintour (Vogue), Ted Turner.[1]

Why? What did they miss out on? Did they become a better or worse leader as a result? Some of them have reported that college education did not stimulate their capabilities for innovation and ‘big-picture’ thinking: essential components for leadership roles. Leadership training at college, for that generation, was generally not on the radar.

Before I explore the role that colleges can play in preparing people for future leadership roles, let me just clarify the definition and capability requirements of a leadership role.

What Do Leaders Do?

There are many different versions to choose from (everyone has a different take on the subject), but for sheer pragmatism (and based on ample research) here is the definition by Elliott Jaques I would base my arguments on:

‘Leadership is that process in which one person sets the purpose or direction for […] other persons and gets them to move together with him or her and with each other in that direction with competence and full commitment.’[2]

Jaques expanded on that definition by outlining what leaders need to do for their staff as a minimum set of accountabilities [3]:

  • Select and induct employees
  • Set context – this requires having the mental capability to understand the ‘big picture’, and to communicate their vision of how to tackle it to their people
  • Assign work – understand what is the work to be done, and who is best matched to do it
  • Evaluate and develop performance
  • Develop talent pool and succession plan
  • Education, training and leadership development

What Do Leadership Roles Require?

Leadership capability is a complex jigsaw puzzle. Whether we are talking about leadership in the private, public or not-for-profit sectors, leaders need:

  • Cognitive capacity: to define and analyze problems, understand their context and root causes, evaluate a range of options and decide on the best ones to match the situation – all of this in a world of uncertainty and constant change, information overload (and imperfect data) and increasingly complex relationships. Leaders at all organizational levels need to be able to handle complexity (and the level of complexity increases as you go up the organization).
  • High levels of socio-emotional maturity: integrity, ethics and courage in the ways they manage themselves and their relationships, both personal and professional.
  • A wide range of competencies which sit on top of these fundamental layers of capability and values. Competencies such as business acumen, communication, external perspective, relationship management, influencing and negotiating, planning, employee and team motivation and development and resource management are critical to all leadership roles.

Learning To Be a Leader

How can these capability factors be learned? Business and community leaders will have had a mixed bag of learning experiences: most will talk about learning from others, having the benefits of mentoring as well as learning from their own mistakes throughout their lives. Some will have had the benefit of an executive development program; others will talk about their work in the voluntary sector which taught them valuable lessons in resource management and relationship-building. But how many will credit their college education for preparing them for leadership roles? A generation ago, there would have been few colleges who offered any kind of leadership development. Fortunately, that situation has now changed.

Theory versus Practice

College degree courses related to business and management will help to introduce students to leadership theory (for example: the pre-college program at Wharton), often with business leaders contributing to curriculum design[4]. Good college courses and tutors, in many subjects, will show students how to think differently – how to define and critically analyze problems make decisions and communicate them effectively. But that is where the theoretical approach to learning tends to have its limitations.

Students who take leadership opportunities through chairing meetings, running projects, managing a sports team[5] or a community group will learn the realities of leadership. Learning to motivate people to accept change, for example, is a key leadership challenge. Sometimes students will also be given the benefit of mentoring by managers from the business world who seek to pass on their wisdom to the next generation of leaders and perhaps to give students something they were not able to access in their own college years. (Check out your college to see if this facility is available.)

There are good practical examples of college students acquiring leadership skills. In ‘Leadership Lessons of College CEOs’ Cal Newport at Dartmouth College talks about the challenges of students leading their peers and offers interesting insights into motivation and empowerment, based on his experiences.

Leader or Entry-Level Position?

Can college graduates skip entry-level positions and take their first step directly into a leadership role?

‘Do not just assume that someone with a college degree is going to be hired into a management position and have the ability to take charge of a group of people.’ [6]

Employers will tend to fill leadership positions (even at first-level Team Leader) with people who have either had leadership roles already or else have demonstrated strong potential capability in this area. There may still exist some resistance to taking on a fresh college graduate over someone who has performed well as a frontline specialist and who has worked their way up, understands the business environment through personal experience and experienced the realities of working relationships, employee motivation, change management and so on.

College students who maximize practical leadership opportunities (whether within their college course environment or as a result of outside activities) will stand a better chance of competing for first-line leadership roles and of adding real value to their new employer.



[1]Schmitz, Paul, "Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up"

[2] Jaques, Elliott, ‘Executive Leadership’,p4.  Cason Hall & Co. 1996 (revised)

[3] Jaques, Elliott, ‘Executive Leadership’, Cason Hall & Co. 1994 (revised)

[4] Farkas, Steve, HIRING AND HIGHER EDUCATION: Business Executives Talk about the Costs and Benefits of College, 2011