What the MBA Doesn't Teach: How to Become a Leader

I had always been intrigued by people's transitions into leadership. In fact, that was my motivation when I started this blog. One of the first things I sought to find out during my internship was how leaders got to where they were. My finding is this. It's not the degree. It's not age or how smart they are. It's not the resume, or otherwise a checklist of experiences that appear to be necessary to move up. It's the person and their motivators. It's how they interpreted the world around them and how they were able to take the initiative to transform themselves.

Now let's look at the MBA. There is always a debate as to whether the MBA is worth it or not. That's actually the wrong question to ask. The MBA is merely a tool to help you get where you want to go. It's not a silver bullet solution, nor an automatic ticket to success. Simply enrolling in an elite MBA program is not going to transform a person into a leader. It's incumbent on the person to fully leverage all of the resources that an MBA program offers and not the other way around.

Here's what I'm trying to say. If you gave me a brush, some paint and a piece of paper, I will give you back a piece of paper. But if you gave the same things to Leonardo Da Vinci, he can give you the Mona Lisa. If you gave me a movie script, I can read it to you. But if you gave that script to Al Pacino, he becomes the Godfather.

My point is that like the brush, paint and paper, the MBA is only a tool. With this tool, different people will get different results. By engaging with the leaders that the MBA programs bring in, people will respond in different ways. Just going to a Tim Cook Distinguished Speaker Series talk at Duke is not going to make someone any better a leader than me watching the Godfather is going to make me a better actor.

What the MBA will do is show you what success looks like. It will open the door to allow you to engage with senior leaders as the internship did for me. But it will not teach you how to actually become a leader. Only you can do that for yourself.

It's funny when people get into hardcore arguments about school rankings and brands. Some have strong feelings about the proper order for the Top 3 or Top 7 or Top 20 schools. They're missing the point. That's like arguing if Leonardo Da Vinci is using a $10 brush or a $100 brush.

When companies are hiring MBAs, they are not looking for smart people or people who can do work well. These companies already have them - people who have years of experience and are good at the work they do. Most MBA students are career switchers anyway, so fundamentally there is no way that we'd have more experience than people already on the job. Rather, when hiring MBAs these companies are looking for potential leaders to fill their pipelines.

The path to leadership is varied (changed from "vague" based on reader comments on LinkedIn). When I was in college, I loved to read biographies. I wanted to understand how leaders became who they were. I eventually realized that biographies wouldn't tell me that. They only tell me what happened, not why they happened. And this is exactly why it's so hard to teach someone how to be a leader. That "why" is unique to each person. In this scenario, the "why" is the motivation, and the biography is like the leadership talks of an MBA program.

I believe that for a person to be a leader, they have to first want to be one. Everyone wants a promotion, but the true leader views a promotion as just another road sign on the path to leadership. They reflected often on their strengths and where they needed to improve. They were disciplined in maintaining that focus. Only when the team did well and team members met their development goals did they feel truly happy. And that is authentic leadership, my friends.

Read the other posts in my MBA Internship Leadership Series here:

Leadership: the Key Ingredient to Success
Gaining Exposure to Senior Leaders: Night Jobs
Get Promoted: First Build Trust With Your Boss
Leadership Development: Finding Time to Reflect
Non-Traditional MBA Skills, A Hidden Asset


  1. Thanks! Great thoughts!

  2. Thanks!I couldn't agree with you more.

  3. I really enjoy your articles and the thinking process. Pretty interesting.

  4. I really enjoy your articles and the thinking process. Pretty interesting.