Over the past few months, my fellow students and I have endured a gruelling workload in pursuit of the mythical power of the MBA to positively transform our lives. That positive transformation means different things to each of us. Some of us seek a path to personal wealth, others a chance to change their career paths. My MBA began as a step to career advancement and, so far, the experience has been enriched with personal growth. The MBA is indeed a transformative event in our lives, and perhaps the real value is measured in the value of the lessons we learn about ourselves.
The MBA presents a number of challenges over and above formal academic requirements. We must learn to work together in pre-allocated syndicates to tackle our group assignments. In each of my syndicates so far, each team member has been given an opportunity to lead a project. Leading a group project challenged me to keep an open mind and take personal criticism on board. The real learning from the group work came from interaction with fellow students and the feedback they gave me on my leadership style.
Authentic leadership describes leaders with sincerity, honesty and integrity. As Harvard leadership guru Bill George suggests, leading with authenticity cannot be achieved by imitating other leaders, but is rather the result of a leader’s sustained commitment to understanding themself better. And knowing yourself is only the first part – as a leader, you also need to develop what leadership gurus Goffee and Jones define as “an extensive repertoire of roles, which can make him/her seem very different to different people in different situations”.
Sound simple? The complexity in being an authentic leader emerges when one recognises that authentic leadership demands more than an uncensored expression of your inner self. The very act of self-expression is complex and contrived. Leaders face what I call ‘the Chameleon Conundrum’. This describes the conflicting requirements of modern business executives to act appropriately and present different, complex selves when dealing with vastly different constituencies in different situations, on a daily basis, while remaining true to and connected to their core passions and beliefs.
Learning how to deal with different people, and becoming sensitive to the needs and expectations of people from different career paths or cultural backgrounds, has been an integral part of my MBA experience. My personal journey of self-discovery began when I received tough feedback from a classmate early on in the year. He said: “You’re a dictator. You don’t listen.”
These comments came after working together on our syndicate project. I had taken the lead and had clearly upset my teammate. At first, I was angry and defensive, but later I apologised and thanked him. His criticism stung, but he was right. He had identified my natural inclination to dominate group discussions. After some self-reflection, I decided that I would make a concerted effort to be less domineering and to become a more attentive listener in my syndicate discussions. As part of an assignment on leadership, I was asked to interview a senior manager and solicit their insights on the subject of authentic leadership. My interviewee was a colleague of mine at Deloitte Consulting. He suggested that the yardstick used by followers to measure a leader’s authenticity is an understanding of the leader’s intent.
Successful empowerment through coaching and mentoring is dependent on intent. In a coach-coachee relationship, the authentic leader must have a genuine intent to empower his coachee. During our interview, it emerged that he had sacrificed significant career opportunities to uphold and support these principles. Our interview revealed that his intrinsic motivation to develop the creative potential in others is what gets him out of bed in the morning, not the size of his bonus. In the weeks after the interview, I thought about my intent when I coached and developed others. The principle of true intent to empower resonated with me, and I realised that this was a critical component of my MBA journey. While one may lament the competition between egos in an MBA class, in the syndicates individuals become bound by a common purpose. I have got immense satisfaction from sharing knowledge and techniques with fellow students in informal collegial relationships.
The journey to becoming an authentic leader does not begin or end with the MBA. To possess ultimate understanding of ourselves and mastery over our self-expression are goals to strive towards over a lifetime. Whatever drives us as MBA students – the one thing we have in common – is that we are all registered to complete the MBA course. This commitment to satisfying academic requirements includes a journey to a better understanding of ourselves and the way we interact with our colleagues and clients.
For many MBA students, the MBA forms part of larger aspirations. Many of us dream of eventually enjoying the rewards of our hard labour. We all want to believe in the mythical power of the MBA. There is, however, a cautionary tale for those MBA students who view the course purely as a ticket to riches. Colombia’s lost golden city – the mythological city of El Dorado – shifted geographical locations until it became merely a source of untold riches somewhere in the Americas. The enduring attraction to the myth of El Dorado is similar to the alluring myth of untold wealth awaiting qualified MBA students. For those whose motivation is purely material, heed the advice of Edgar Allen Poe from his 1849 poem El Dorado: “Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride... if you seek for El Dorado.” The real value of the MBA is in the lessons we learn about ourselves and how we can improve our leadership style. With the right intent, this value can be translated into developing others, and by developing others, we create a map for career progression, and perhaps even a glimpse of our own El Dorado.