Pressure and pleasure of producing leaders

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Producing leaders has become a national priority in a context where there are more laggards then leaders in critical positions. Among the many roles of a typical business school, enhancing leadership competencies of the students is key.In fact, an exemplary business school should be a‘leader breeder’. Today’s column focuses on the role of abusiness schoolin developing leaders. Let me takethe premier postgraduate enterprise of Sri Lanka,which has spreadits wings to the Middle East,as a casein point.


Business schools are under heavy scrutiny with regards to their role and scope. Are theyoverly academic and losing touch with business realities? A popular article in theHarvard Business Review (HBR) by Warren G. Bennis and James O’Toole asks some pertinent questions. 

“Too focused on ‘scientific’ research, business schools are hiring professors with limited real-world experience and graduating students who are ill-equipped to wrangle with complex, unquantifiable issues in other words, the stuff of management,” the article states.

That’s how theyapproach thewholeissueof missing therelevance. 

“Today, however, MBA programs face intense criticism for failing to impart useful skills, failing to prepare leaders, failing to instill norms of ethical behaviour and even failing to lead graduates to good corporate jobs,” add Bennis and O’Toole. 

Criticisms of MBAs

There is a wave of criticismof MBAs around the world. After the global credit crunch and the collapse of giants led by MBAs, this negativity has gathered momentum. I myself have heard CEOs lamenting that some of their MBAs know a lot of theory but sadly lack the practical approach in applying them to real-life issues. 

Taking this issue in a broader perspective, an ongoing debate in the US has even reached a point to say that MBA-awarding business schools have an identity crisis. I am confident that we will not allow that to happen to us. Yet, it is better to be proactive than reactive.

According to Forbes magazine, business schools have always juggled two missions: educating practitioners and creating knowledge through research. Fifty years ago, as explained by Bennis and O’Toole, business schools shifted their focus from the former to the latter. Management became a science rather than a profession. 

This shift had profound implications. Business schools rewarded professors for publishing their research in academic journals and their curriculum began to reflect the narrow focus of the faculty. Business school professors became increasingly disconnected from practicing managers and leaders. By the mid-2000s, it became clear that business schools had swung too far in one direction.

Back to brilliance

According to Prof.RakeshKhurana of Harvard Business School, professions have at least four key elements: an accepted body of knowledge, a system for certifying that individuals have mastered that body of knowledge before they are allowed to practice, a commitment to the public good and an enforceable code of ethics. Professions thus are oriented toward practice and focused on client needs. Above all, professions integrate knowledge and practice. 

“We do not propose making management a gated profession requiring credentialing and licensing,” argue Bennis and O’Toole. “Nonetheless, we believe a useful step toward acknowledging that business is a profession would be to recognise that both imagination and experience are vital and ought therefore to be central to business education.”

Being conscious of these developments has prompted us to strengthen our practical approach with the necessary framework. It is not only ‘know what’ but ‘know why’ and ‘know how’. For an example, in all the research our students do, it is mandatory to elaborate on managerial implications and practical applications. The reality is very clear. We should not go off-track by producing leaders who are overly engrossedwith the complex theoretical world. 

One dynamic CEO pointed out to me that MBAs should not be just about spitting out jargonand complex-sounding terms without results. Thorough decision-making, with information and intuition where necessary, should be the core. Confidence and competence are thekey. I amsoglad that the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM), being the nation’s management mentor, emphasises producing future leaders with a “global presenceand localpulse”. For us it is about sustaining the brillianceof breeding leaders. 

Producing leaders in Qatar 

It was indeed delightful towitness theinauguration of the third batch of PIM’s MBA in Doha, Qatar. They as a study group would followa blended learning modeinclusiveof a monthly interactive session facilitated by a resourceperson fromSriLanka. 

The obvious reason for Sri Lankans to go to the Middle East, including Dubai and Doha,is to earn. We had to shift that paradigm. It is not only to earn but to learn. I in fact suggested to them that it should be earn, learn and return. That’s where PIM MBA will come in handy.

It was last Thursday that we had the PIM MBA 2018 inauguration in Doha. The PIM alumni (PIMA) chapter of Qatar played a commendable role in organising the event. Kumudu Fonseka, who was instrumental in bringing Sri Lankan study programs to Qatar,shared several of his memories.

He commended the team effort of the Sri Lankan managers in Qatar for opting to embark on a study program offered by a Sri Lankan higher education institute. Martin Gnanachandran, Janaka McDonald and Dushyanthan Kirupakaran were the committee members of the PIMA Qatar chapter who should be mentioned for their commendable effort. 

MBAs as effective leaders

Leaders make right decisionsat the right time with the right resources in producing the right results. That’s what MBAs should do. It givesus pressure to deliver results, yet the pleasure of reaping the rich harvest of effectiveleaders gives usimmense satisfaction.

PIM, asthe nation’smanagement mentor, has produced more than 300 CEOs and more than 3,000 senior managers during its 30years of existence.More than 30,000 participants have experienced the distinct flavour of PIM one way or the other. 

From the process point of view, out comes and outputs are good only when the inputs are good. That’s why I am happy that I sat together with Jayantha Ranapura, our Senior Assistant Registrar, to conduct interviews of candidates who passed the admission test to get selected for PIM’s MBA. 

The practice of enrolling anyone who walks in is for ‘study shops’is definitely not for us. Being the pioneering MBA in Sri Lanka and hailed as the best consistently, PIM has a challenge to continuously improve. 

With rapid technological advancements, the need to have blended learning with the use of ICT tools is on the rise.Also, greater flexibility from the students as well the high standards from the institutions need to be maintained with proper balancing. We have realised the need to ensure quality and relevance at all times.Having a monthly presence by a Sri Lankan resource person in physically conducting lectures, supported by video conferencing and other e-learning tools, will be the way forward. 

MBA as a transformational experience

The PIM’sMBA inauguration in Qatar last Thursdayprompted me to go down memory lane. I indeed went through that transformational experience. As I started off as an engineer and then switched over to management, I realised that an MBA would provide the learner with a holistic view of a situation. 

In brief the learner would be able to enhance functional knowledge through a cylindrical view to broad business knowledge through a conicalview. This interconnectedness transforms the learner to appreciate other functions with a broader prospective or holistic view of the business. 

A good MBA curriculum should consist of business realities, challenges, new ways of looking at issues and produce out-of-the-box solutions. From my own experience at PIM in talking to the alumni of MBA-holders, their single biggest factor which makes them stand out among their fellow peers is the “self-confidence” they have gained in experimenting, creating, innovating through new pathways and questioning the traditional way of doing things. As a result an MBA inculcates a mindset of tackling issues in an innovative and integrated manner. 

Simultaneously, being an MBA-holder will enhance the market value of a person. As for the entrepreneurs, they will have professionals producing value for their organisations in a sustainable manner at the end of the day. The ultimate outcome is the birth of a powerful social network sharing calibre, leading to dynamic forces within organisations and of course pursuing higher benchmarks in professionalism. 

Way forward 

It was Aldous Huxley who said that “at the end of the day what matters is not how much you know but how much you have done.”Simply, the MBA should not be limited to a paper qualification. The purpose of the MBA is to produce professionals not theoreticians. This is exactly where ‘having an MBA’ differs from ‘being a MBA’. Being brilliant asa MBA will bring out professionals who will possess a holistic view of a situation and hence will innovate new ways of thinking through the ability to think on your feet and apply knowledge more systematically. 

MBAsshould never be Mentally BelowAverage. It should always be Mind BeforeAction. It reminds me of what Asian wisdom has taught us, the seeing-doing nexus. SammaDitti (right seeing) should lead to SammaVayama (right action). Being brilliant as an MBA helps the learner to see things clearly and do things cleverly. That’s where the pressure and pleasure of producing leaders really matters.

(Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri can be reached at [email protected], [email protected] or

Recent columns