Study: Management Education Can Build Personal Foundations for Leadership

In order for executives to lead effectively and responsibly, it is essential that they develop their self-awareness and ability to act with courage and integrity in conditions of uncertainty and pressure. Management courses can greatly enhance these foundations of sound leadership to the extent that they foster the personalisation of participants’ learning.


This is one of the key findings of a recent study conducted by Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, Jack Wood, Emeritus Clinical Professor of Leadership at IMD, and Jennifer Petriglieri, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Organisational Behaviour at Harvard Business School.


Their research examines how the personalisation process unfolds and how it fosters the development of leaders.


The study followed a group of 55 high-potential managers over one year in an international MBA programme to closely examine their ambitions, dilemmas and growth. The authors specifically looked at these managers’ work within the ‘Personal Development Elective,’ (PDE), a ‘course’ that provided students with the opportunity to work regularly with a psychotherapist, and the leadership curriculum in which it was embedded.


"Many MBA and executive education brochures these days claim that the course will 'transform' managers into leaders. Our research focuses on what it takes for management education to deliver on that promise and truly foster the transformational learning that enables ongoing leadership development," says Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD.


Transformational Learning

The study, ‘Building Foundations for Leaders’ Development through the Personalization of Management Learning,’ found that transformational learning occurs through a process of personalisation, which helps students hone the discipline to examine their personal experience as part of their management learning and practice.



This process complements the acquisition of conceptual knowledge and analytic skills from traditional coursework, strengthens students’ self-awareness and self-management abilities and allows them to revise and integrate their life stories.


The authors determined that management education programmes, especially residential ones, often function as regressive domains. That is, by taking managers out from their daily context and activities, they amplify concerns, reactions and questions that would otherwise remain under the surface. Unsettling as they may be, it is these experiences that kick off the personalisation process.


"Critics of MBA and executive courses argue that students’ experiences in these programmes are too divorced from the real world to teach them anything about leading. Our study, however, suggests that it is because they are removed from familiar roles and communities that managers are more immediately exposed to their ingrained habits of thinking, feeling and behaving," comments Jack Wood of IMD.


"The real learning comes from inviting students to examine those habitual responses and supporting their experiments with alternatives ones, rather than telling them how they should lead according to academic models, personality tests or 360 feedback profiles."

Personalisation Process

The study shows that managers who engaged in the personalisation process came to view unsettling experiences in the programme ‘bubble’ as learning opportunities and examined them closely, rather than attempting to brush them aside. Helping students figure out what such experiences mean and what can be learned from them, the findings suggest, is the primary task of management educators concerned with leadership development for the long run.


"Sustaining the commitment, curiosity and courage to work with the emotional tensions, moral dilemmas and tough questions that are part of leading in a turbulent world is a central aspect of leaders’ development," notes Jennifer Petriglieri of the Harvard Business School.


"Our research shows that this is a personal discipline that can be developed and that requires the help of others to be sustained."


Their findings challenge traditional conceptions of leadership development and have provocative implications for the redesign of curricula currently underway at many business schools.




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