COVID-19 boom in unrealistic university leadership courses

After a key conference I was set to travel to was cancelled by the COVID-19 crisis, I was persuaded to register for its alternative, an online ‘improving your decision-making’ webinar.

The promise of how much better this virtual interaction would be for my judgement and decision-making abilities, along with the other 450 people already registered for the event, did not sit well with me.

I couldn’t help but respond to the organisers and point out that the best and worst decisions have never been learnt or made from a distance in such an impersonal manner.

The temptation for business schools is to ‘solve’ the COVID-19 threat by packaging management and leadership courses into online offerings that are likely to prove disastrous for the higher education sector.

Every piece of digital material then becomes rigorously scripted, losing nuance and the opportunity for spontaneous discussion or debate. While it’s possible to incorporate entertaining video clips containing stories, cameos and nods to the realities of leadership, such learning is devoid of context.

How decisions are taken

Our ongoing research into corporate leadership shows that whether choices are made by the CEO of Enron or Lehman Brothers, the reasons behind resulting scandals or corporate failures were already known by an assortment of staff and management before they happened.

The real deficiencies in organisations are never found on the risk register. Many staff accurately predict the demise of their enterprise well before it happens, but the reasons are rarely discussed beforehand because of the dysfunctionality between leaders over complex issues that are too sensitive to raise openly.

Decision-making cannot be learnt in a crowd, so how can online education help us understand and work through tense, known concerns which herald long-term and damaging consequences?

Despite this, we all continue to be inundated with invitations to join webinars, online seminars and other forms of virtual gathering to learn the skills that will make a real ‘difference’ to our lives.

In line with this trend, a recent Gartner survey highlights the determination of chief financial officers (CFOs) to make remote working a central feature of the employment landscape. In fact, of CFOs:

• 81% plan to have hourly workers adopt remote, flexible working.

• 20% report reducing office technology spend as home working will substitute this.

The same survey reports that of top executives, 60% have cut back on leadership events and offsite gatherings, 58% have frozen hiring and 58% have frozen travel and conference attendance.

The new substitute for all of these challenges has become online learning and remote working.

However, it is a context that is the most critical challenge for leaders, and this is entirely different for each sector or company. How to engage across varied misalignments in each situation requires a contrasting mindset and approach each time.

A false sense of security

Learning online offers a false sense of security, while true education comes from discussion around individuals’ experiences, feelings, assumptions and reflection upon the actions they have or haven’t taken.

While operating online may be well suited to a set of specific and clearly defined tasks, it fails drastically for organisations that have to differentiate from their competition, showcase a competitive edge, and make a substantive difference for their clients.

Highly competitive markets require leadership capabilities that are not catered for by online training or remote learning.

The development of leadership and high-performing managers requires a deep appreciation of significant obstacles that must be overcome on a case-by-case basis. This in turn develops an individual’s ability to navigate through a host of misaligned interests, enabling them to pull an organisation together.

Leadership demands that we enhance core behaviours, intellect and personal qualities, such as resilience, sensitivity and humility. Capability development is contextually determined. Each different circumstance requires an alternate combination of capabilities to deal with it.

In contrast, online skills training offers little more than generic bundles of delivery modules. These packages quickly become indistinguishable from one another and the only competitive advantage available is a lowering of price.

Value-gathering leadership

To be clear, remote working and the delivery of online skills training was always going to take hold in some form, regardless of the COVID-19 crisis. However, convenience, simplicity and pricing offers nothing towards becoming a better manager or leader.

The United Kingdom’s business school offer was always facing a dramatic reappraisal in the wake of Brexit, but this process has been massively accelerated by COVID-19. The question is: ‘where will the appropriate education for leaders and wealth creators be centred in a post-Europe Britain?’

The solution, I believe, lies in the creation of up to four new UK business schools which will provide executive education beyond and outside of the current university system.

In effect, this fourth tier of education would be completely divorced from Britain’s traditional higher education model of research and education and emphasise value-generating leadership that puts the UK on a par with Harvard University.

Leaders need to be guided, intellectually stretched and coached towards thinking how enterprises can be steered through the challenges of the day.

In the current climate there is a desperate need for practical wisdom, and definitely not a bundle of slides or self-proclaimed expert videos forcing their way onto our screens. Click to skip.

Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School, United Kingdom. He consults and lectures in the United Kingdom, Europe, United States, Asia, China, Japan, Russia, Georgia, the Gulf states and Australia. He is currently embarked on a major £2 million (US$2.5 million) global study of boardroom effectiveness and governance practice, with the participation of a number of governments including British ministers of state. His top team database covers 17 nations and thousands of private and public sector organisations.