Leadership worth following

Principal’s Perspective


When convocation finishes at the beginning of June, McGill will have sent another group of promising, talented graduates out into the world to make their mark. The nature of leadership has never been so hotly debated as during this global recession, which, more than signaling an economic crisis, is a crisis of management—and, therefore, leadership.

In the 20th century, the American media, which help shape trends around the world, created an obsession with leaders—what renowned McGill management professor Henry Mintzberg calls a “cult of leadership,” perhaps rooted in that country’s historically individualistic mindset. Today images of rock-star CEOs and politicians are plastered everywhere. This focus on iconic leaders builds organizations which, instead of functioning as inclusive, creative “communities,” become centred on “individual initiative” alone. When these organizations fail, we blame the leader, then turn around and repeat our mistake by seeking a “better” one. As Mintzberg has put it, “Like drug addicts, each time we need a bigger hit.”

By elevating and empowering one individual in this manner, we disempower the group. Organizations of all kinds require more “distributed leadership”— leadership based on influence, not authority, among people of talent connected by a common cause. After all, why hire smart people unless you’re going to let them loose? Leaders who foster creative thought and inspire ambition for change succeed in creating a broad ownership among members of their organization, whether it is a company, a school, or even a country.

Universities can and should play a key role in nurturing a new kind of leader. Yet as Mintzberg has pointed out, MBA programs and courses across all disciplines that aim and claim to create leaders too often promote “hubris” instead, perpetuating the cult of leadership. At McGill, in a context informed by the highest international standards of excellence, all our faculties take a “3-I” approach to teaching— International, Interdisciplinary and Inquiry-based — equipping students with the cultural and intellectual fluency they will need to lead in new ways.

One example of our 3-I approach is the International Masters in Health Leadership, uniquely designed to teach physicians, nurses and other health professionals how health care is organized in different jurisdictions. Participants bring key issues from their own organizations around the world to Montreal to work on them cooperatively, with peers and faculty. And jointly with another Montreal-based business school, HEC, our Desautels Faculty of Management is implementing a new Executive MBA program. The EMBA students, who all have substantial business experience, learn different “managerial mindsets” and undertake a residential module in Asia or Latin America. While foreign exposure can be risky in a financial portfolio, in education it is a fine way to diversify; it expands knowledge, tolerance and creativity.

The broad thinking these programs require is the foundation of the Integrated Management approach underlying all of our management programs. Students are challenged to consider not just business, but the broader economic and social context in which business operates. Similarly, leadership today demands a broad commitment to growing a healthy society. The new leader has scientific and technological fluency, knowledge of the great religions and cultures of the world, the ability to communicate in more than one language, and an open mind and heart.

Beyond academics, great publicly purposed universities like McGill provide opportunities to acquire these leadership skills—by providing a place for students to undertake volunteer work at home and abroad, to play and teach team sports, to participate in student and professional organizations, and to trade ideas with people from across the world. Thus equipped, McGill graduates are set to become modern leaders with wise judgment and an authentic character, well-rounded people unafraid to make the right choices for the medium and long term, even when unpopular in the short. Take our founder. Contrary to his family’s wishes and the zeitgeist of the times, James McGill, a pillar of the emerging Montreal community, donated his farmland and 10,000 pounds in 1813 to create a secular institution of higher learning. Everything Canada’s most internationally acclaimed university has done for society stems from this one leader’s farsightedness.

At McGill, leadership abounds. We are inspired by our founder’s vision, and succeeding beyond even his wildest dreams.

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