Hesler, GMBA Class of 2017
article is part of a series covering Tsinghua Student Dialogues with Advisory
Board Members. These dialogues took place on October 20, 2016, in association
with the larger Tsinghua SEM 2016 Advisory Board Meeting.
MIT Sloan School of
Management Dean David Schmittlein dialogues with GMBA students over key
questions of leadership.
MIT Sloan School of
Management Dean David Schmittlein joined a classroom of first- and second-year Tsinghua-MIT
Global MBA students as part of Tsinghua SEM’s Advisory Board Student Dialogue
series. Although the dialogue was wide-ranging, much of the conversation hinged
in some fashion on leadership – a frequent topic of discussion in MBA
classrooms, but one on which conclusions are often anything but unanimous.
Dean Schmittlein opened
the conversation by acknowledging a distinction between management – which, at
its most basic, Dean Schmittlein suggested, might be defined as simply getting
people to do what the organization needs – and leadership. He explored a
further distinction between knowledge-based leadership – centered on buildable skills – and leadership traits that are often considered
hard-wired elements of personality. Dean Schmittlein posited, however, that
traits aren’t as fixed in a person’s early years as is commonly assumed, which
begged his ensuing question: what would it look like (for instance, from an
institutional or corporate vantage point) to be serious about fostering traits?
programs and curricula have often focused on developing knowledge skills –
communication and teamwork capacity, for example. However, from Dean Schmittlein’s
perspective, trait-building is often accomplished most effectively by
voluntarily choosing experiences that require a moderate amount of the desired
trait – courage, empathy, etc. As an illustration of this point, Dean
Schmittlein shared a glimpse into the narrative of Lorenzo Mendoza, CEO of
Empresas Polar, a large South American food processing and packaging company.
Mendoza, widely recognized for his social responsibility
efforts in leading Empresas, has come under heavy criticism and direct interference
from leaders in his home country of Venezuela. Mendoza is hailed as a hero by
many of his fellow citizens due to his efforts to maintain a consistent supply
line for many of their basic needs via Empresas, even in the midst of national shortages,
supply chain hiccups, and hyperinflation. Despite daunting opposition and
obstacles, Mr. Mendoza has continued to push forward with a determination that
has seemingly grown over time, rising in accordance with the magnitude of the
challenges before his country and its people.
foremost takeaway from Mr. Mendoza? “When you do things that require courage,
it becomes addictive.”
From an education
perspective, a worthwhile inquiry seems to be how to induce the choice of
experiences that develop desirable leadership (or other) traits. In the case of
MIT Sloan, students are not, for instance, required to participate in
project-based learning experiences as part of their curriculum. However, opportunities to participate in such
experiences are abundant. As Dean Shmittlein argued, requiring project-based
learning experiences would turn them into a “box to check.” Rather, MIT Sloan endeavors
to admit the types of students who choose to place themselves in contexts in which they will be nudged to authentically
grow. In turn, the school provides them with the opportunity to choose from a
rich variety of such contexts, with the expectation that these choices and
their transformational results will continue to follow students well beyond
graduation. Mr. Mendoza – himself an MBA alum of MIT Sloan – is one such
As a prospective future
business leader, I found myself grappling with some of the implications of this
insight. Leadership development is necessarily a connected process. My own
leadership development, if authentic, should invoke a cultivation of leadership
qualities in those around me. However, my capacity to be selective in those I’m
tasked with leading and developing will often be more limited than that of
highly reputable institutions such as MIT Sloan and Tsinghua SEM. I may not
always have the luxury of substantial choice in whom I’m leading and their
predispositions towards building particular personal traits.
Perhaps, though, it is
in those contexts that Dean Schmittlein’s proposition is all the more salient. My
choice may not always be as much about whom I get to lead, but more about
whether to embrace the uncertainty that comes with such contexts, building a trait of willing adaptiveness that
other circumstances might not require. Similarly, finding a way to frame
trait-building choices in an attractive light for others who must make those
choices is itself an important leadership skill.
Ultimately, it seems,
Dean Schmittlein’s argument was less about pitting leadership skills versus leadership traits than about
growing the skills in combination with traits.
For a classroom full of aspiring global leaders, distinguishing between the two
and being equipped to develop both affords an extra tool in an ever-growing
toolbox as we size up the consequential challenges that we hope to tackle in
the years to come.