On B-School, Leadership, and Narcissism

On B-School, Leadership, and Narcissism
If B-schools produce narcissists, the admissions process is only partly to blame (Photograph by Morgan Norman/Gallery Stock)
Photograph by Morgan Norman/Gallery Stock

I recently read the Bloomberg Businessweek blog post, “Does it Matter if B-Schools Produce Narcissists?by Jeffrey Pfeffer. It got me ruminating about the role of business school in promulgating a particular type of leadership through current admissions-selection practices—the type of leader Pfeffer describes as narcissistic.

Pfeffer maintains that from the pool of available applicants, business schools select for “the qualities commonly associated in research studies with narcissism—such as competitiveness, being willing to expect and ask for more, extraversion, emergent leadership, and enhanced performance on tasks that get publicly evaluated.” With the breadth of organizations that exist today and their distinct missions, services, and products, shouldn’t B-schools be looking to select and educate leaders who represent a broader range of leadership attributes and abilities?

Having sat in the admissions dean’s chair for more than a decade, I understand just how difficult it is to assess candidates and their ability to thrive and contribute to business school. The characteristics often sought in the MBA evaluation process are formed long before a person applies to business school. Early in a child’s education and along each step of that person’s development, she or he is shaped and molded by experiences, family circumstances, socioeconomic status, and opportunities—or lack thereof.

By the time a student considers college, each experience has acted as a filter that shaped the next steps. (A simplistic example is that success often builds confidence to take the next step forward, while failure often leads to a change in course.) By the time a student considers graduate school, a fair amount of self-selection and filtering has already taken place. So while B-schools seek to attract a breadth of students to their MBA programs, the applicant pool has been narrowed by personal filters and external perceptions of what typical business school students are like.

Yes, B-schools should be—and are—looking for a broader range of students who will succeed not only during the MBA program, but who will thrive long after in their careers and their impact on the greater good. The obstacles to achieving this diversity are less the fault of the MBA admissions-selection process and more on the limitations that we each place on ourselves.

Yes, narcissistic leaders may always get more attention and recognition, but their impact and success in the world will be of no greater importance than your own, if you dare to try. Is your filter in the way?

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