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How to make a good business leader

MBA programs are more than just an opportunity to grow a personal network according to the dean of Duke's Fuqua School of Business. (Video: Lillian Cunningham, Jayne Orenstein, Kyle Barss and Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

As dean of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, Bill Boulding spends much of his time thinking about how to shape the ideal next-generation business leader. In this interview, he talks with The Washington Post about what you can and can't change about someone's leadership capacity, and the ripple effect he hopes today's training will have on the future of big business. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What’s one of the biggest challenges you wrestle with when deciding how to teach leadership?

A. There is an interesting school of thought that says that leaders are born and not educated. I don’t happen to subscribe to that notion, obviously, but you do have to start by selecting the right kind of people.

The classic model of leadership was to find the smartest person in the room and have that person tell everybody else what to do. That’s not the kind of leadership that produces the innovation that the world needs. The kind of leader who succeeds today is the leader who can bring people together and make great things happen through collaboration.

When you’re dealing with incoming students who are 27- or 28-years-old, you probably are dealing with people who have formed their values and aren’t going to fundamentally change their personalities in any way. So we look for people who care about others, who see that the success of others is what makes them successful, and who have a sense of purpose and want to make a difference in the world.

Q. What do you think needs to be at the heart of leadership coursework?

A. One of the things that we think is really critical about leadership is to be able to lead effectively in a team setting and to really unlock the value that others have to offer.

Some people understand the need to collaborate, but instinctively they look for people like themselves. They think, “If you have my background and you think like me, we’re not going to get tangled up in arguments and fights. We’re going to be so efficient, so well coordinated, and we’ll get so much done.” Well, that’s true, but that’s not collaboration. That’s cloning.

The key thing about collaboration is your ability to bring different kinds of people together, different ways of thinking. If you’re just repeating yourself, you’re not going to get to any breakthrough that you couldn’t have gotten to eventually by yourself.

Q. What’s your advice for how to work better with someone who doesn’t see eye to eye with you?

A. We’re easily annoyed by other people. Sometimes you have to basically count to 10 and say to yourself, “This person is so aggravating, but why are they annoying me so much?” Then start to probe what that person is trying to communicate to you.

Where you get in trouble is if you take the annoyance personally. Instead, think about how you have an obligation to dissent when you have different ideas and an obligation to authentically represent yourself. Then understand that you’re not the only one with that obligation—the other person also has that obligation.

Q. Do you think it’s possible to effectively teach students to become more ethical business leaders?

A. You probably can’t take someone who is dishonest at their core and educate that out of them. But what schools can do is help people understand the complexities of the situations that they’re going to go into, and you can give them a lot of practice around such situations. That can be extremely helpful in taking people who have a fundamentally positive ethical behavior and helping them tap into the ethics they have inside.

Q. When you look across the business community today, what frustrates you?

A. The idea that there is a real loss of trust around business leadership. The Edelman TrustBarometer shows that business leaders are now held in the same low regard as politicians. There’s also research showing that, according to the general public, all a CEO really cares about is their own compensation. That overall perception of negativity bothers me a lot, because I firmly believe that business is going to be the transformational engine of the 21st century, that it’s through business activity we’re going to solve challenges around health and energy, our environmental future, education, bringing people out of poverty and so forth.

It’s frustrating to see this gap between the opportunity to really change the world through positive business activity and the lack of trust that people have.

Q. Today’s business students may in 10 or 20 years be CEOs of some of the world’s biggest companies. Do you think their leadership style is going to be very different from that of current CEOs?

A. We already are seeing a new breed of leadership. One of my frustrations is that I think this view of business leaders being bad people is exaggerated. There are some leaders out there who are really fine individuals, who lead in a way that I would hope our current students could emulate—someone like Tim Cook at Apple, who leads in a way where he represents himself authentically.

Tim is one of our graduates from a number of years ago. When he came back and spoke to our students, everyone was so excited because when they looked at him they said: He’s one of us. He has the same values we have. He wants to make the people around him better. He wants to make his organization better.

Q. What weighs on you most as dean of a business school?

A. If people decided there’s really no opportunity to change the world for the better through business. That’s my nightmare.

Q. Are you concerned about the cost of business school, and whether such programs are getting a diverse enough group of applicants?

A. That is a very real and legitimate concern. Business skills are so relevant in many walks of life, not just for-profit settings. We need people with business capabilities who are social entrepreneurs, who are involved in non-profits, who are involved in social impact activities.

Even though the price tag of an MBA education is very high, there’s also scholarship support—whether a front-end scholarship or loan forgiveness.

Q. Business school has something of the reputation as an elite social club, where once you’re in it’s really all about networking. Does that perception worry you, or do you see that as a fundamental part of what going to business school entails?

A. Look, that bothers me. I don’t want people to think—and I don’t want it to be a reality—that business school is just about networking, and parties that allow that networking, and it’s only open and available to the wealthy who can travel the world and have these parties. That is extremely upsetting as a vision for what a business school education can be.

You need people who enter the business school world, and then the business world, who aren’t all about “I’m so smart, I can just party my way through this and build these connections, and we’re going to do all these deals because we party together.” Instead you need people who really want to have a positive impact in the world, and to bring people together for a purpose that makes a difference. Then that networking becomes something entirely different.

Q. What’s your advice to someone thinking through whether an MBA is right step for them?

A. You should ask yourself: What do I want to accomplish, how is it that I would like to make a difference? And then think through, what are the skills that I need to be able to make that happen?

There are just so many different domains where you can benefit from learning about how to manage and lead, how to use resources in the most effective way. And what’s maybe most important from a business education is learning to make something sustainable. Often people get a burst of energy and enthusiasm, but they don’t think through: How do I put something into place that will live on without me? That’s where I think a business education is unbelievably helpful.

Q. What’s a leadership lesson you learned the hard way?

A. When I became dean, I felt like there were so many different things that I needed to do right away. As a consequence, I was going here and there and everywhere, just trying to do everything I could think of. That was not a very effective strategy. No one was willing to give me the honest feedback because I was so early in the job, but that probably made me look very ineffective and not very focused.

I had a conversation with Tim Cook early on, and I said, “Can you give me any advice?” And he said, “You’re trying to do too much. You should have three things that you’re focused on, at most four.” It’s not complicated or rocket science, but at that moment in time it was incredibly important advice for me.

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