I recently had the opportunity to sit in on the Leadership elective, which is available to students across our suite of MBA programmes. In this article, I look at the processes and strategies students learnt to develop their leadership skills and examine their own personality traits.

Henry Oakes Full-Time MBA 2016-17 - "leadership elective helped me become more aware."

Henry Oakes
Full-Time MBA 2016-17

The leadership elective was a fitting end to the MBA. It helped me to become more aware of my leadership strengths and weaknesses, and to diagnose previous ineffective leadership as a function of my traits, habits and behaviours. This reflection has given me the insight to create a tangible self-development plan. As I head back into the workplace, I’m equipped with a renewed sense of confidence in how I can be more effective in future.

Walking into the lecture theatre, there is a buzz of conversation and catch ups. It’s the beginning of the four day Leadership Elective, open to students across our four MBA programmes, all of whom seem excited for the course ahead.  For many students this is one of the last modules of their programme, and one they hope will give them greater awareness and insight into their personality to help develop their leadership skills.

The elective looks at the study of leadership and how to better manage the challenges faced when motivating and inspiring people. It explores how leadership is present in the workplace and provides an overview of diagnostic tools that can help to identify interpersonal and teamwork skills. Over the four days students have the opportunity to explore their own personality traits, how they behave in certain situations, and how others might perceive their behaviours compared to how they intend them to come across. This is designed to help discover avenues for self-development with the goal of creating a personal leadership action plan for future leadership challenges.

Talking to students before the lecture begins, I learnt that some students had chosen the Leadership elective because they are working in corporate leadership, others are looking to learn more about themselves to help grow their career, and some are just looking for a change from the finance-focused modules they’ve chosen.

The lecturer for the module, Professor Nelson Phillips, engages students immediately with his relaxed, entertaining nature and constant encouragement for students to share their own experiences. Throughout the elective, students offer anecdotal examples from a range of industries and backgrounds, providing discussion points from real-world situations and an opportunity to explore good and bad examples of leadership from their own experiences. With a genuine interest in everyone’s experiences, Nelson helps students assess how they could have managed situations better to be more influential leaders. A common theme in all experiences is the importance of understanding the situation you’re in and the people you want to lead.

Teaching the leadership elective is always fun and interesting. We spend a lot of time talking about the students’ experiences of leadership and my focus is on helping them learn from what they have experienced. This is not a theoretical course, but one where we focus directly on developing the leadership skills of the students.

Professor Nelson Phillips, Abu Dhabi Chamber Chair in Innovation and Strategy.

The elective starts with an overview of the history of leadership and the different styles seen over time, which provides good context for how we understand leadership today. The conversation moves from historical figures to current day leaders in the workplace, and how leaders provide feedback to their teams. Working in small groups, students share their experiences of giving and receiving feedback and what was seen as effective or ineffective. It’s important for leaders to be able to give and receive feedback in a way that motivates people to act. Going through the benefits of providing effective feedback in a team situation, Nelson also emphasizes the worst kind – no feedback. Giving people no indication on how they’re performing can lead to unmotivated, disengaged employees. He talks about the importance of providing feedback in relation to a goal to help employees understand where the company is heading and how they fit into the larger plan.

Guest speaker Guy Beringer

Guy Beringer comes with a wealth of leadership experience. Currently, Guy is the Chairman of the Legal Education Foundations, Co-Chair of Bingham Centre Appeal Board, Chairman of City Music Services, and Director of BCKR Limited. In the past Guy has been the Chairman of UK Export Finance as well as working in a large global professional services business. He discusses how leadership and management differ and how they are used in corporate structures compared to flat structures. He provides insight into how important it is to assess business situations and personnel, then modify your leadership style to fit the business goals and employee personalities. By outlining some of the greatest attributes of leadership and why these are important, he provides key points for students to focus on when developing their own leadership skills. Students had many questions for Guy on how to implement what they’ve learnt from him, problems they have come across leading their teams, and how they can better understand their teams, managers, and colleagues.

Exploring personality traits

Personality was a key part of the course and guest lecturer Dr Namrata Malhota takes students through the intersection of leadership and personality. Namrata explored the link between character traits and emotions, how these manifest as behaviours, and how a person’s intended behaviours can differ to how others may perceive them. A look into the history behind understanding personality and research around it provided an insight into the difficulties of assessing personality and traits.

To assess their own personalities, students completed one of the most widely used personality questionnaires, the IPIP NEO Personality Traits questionnaire, which uses the five factor model of personality to assess traits. Based on earlier discussions, students were able to analyse how their traits fit in with the general attributes associated with leadership. After self-assessment, they again moved into groups to analyse each other’s questionnaire results.

It was striking to see how close the students are. They were all open to feedback and able to give great insight into each other’s personalities, as well as offer possible reasons for particular questionnaire results. As well as questioning the ability to self-analyse your own personality, there was much discussion around cultural differences and how certain leadership traits could be seen as positive in one culture and negative in another. One of the examples comes from Russian Full-Time MBA student, Alexander Makarov, who described stoicism as being an integral part of leadership in Russia, but in England he hadn’t seen as much of it in leaders and thought it was more likely to be viewed as unapproachable or cold.

Charisma was also a hotly debated topic, specifically how it fitted into leadership. All agreed it’s an important part of leadership but found difficulty in defining charisma, discovering different concepts of it within and across cultures. Again the class discussion was animated with everyone being encouraged to give their opinion. This developed into a question about ways in which leaders use charisma and how communication can be charismatic.

The theme of communication continued through the rest of the module with a focus on using communication to motivate people to act. We came back to the idea of intentions and perceptions, ensuring that you convey your meaning clearly, communicating in different ways for different groups and people.

Christos Kazaklis
Weekend MBA 2016-17

The Leadership elective was my last elective and one of my favourites. The class was very interactive and Nelson was very charismatic in communicating the ideas in the class. I liked the use of diagnostic tools through case studies that helped me become aware of my personality traits. The group discussions also contributed to identifying my strengths and weaknesses in leadership. Overall, I felt that I left the class with an idea about what is required for a personal self-development plan to help me face future leadership challenges.

Leadership strategies

Nelson took the class through strategies used to mobilise or inspire people to act including the use of coaching, influencing, storytelling, and how to manage difficult conversations as ways of leading people. We explored different styles and ways of becoming better at all of these strategies. Storytelling and symbolic leadership were really interesting concepts when looking at ways to communicate your message and inspire others. Creating meaning and being honest gives you credibility and creates a narrative that employees want to be part of.

Discussions about how to manage your boss also arose and students had lots of examples of when people had done this well and when it hadn’t worked out for them. Again, building from real-world experiences, Nelson offered strategies to more effectively influence your boss.

The final day focused on leadership across cultures. With such a diverse group of students there were plenty of stories from a range of different cultures and organisations.

By the end of the elective students had created a personal leadership development plan to help navigate through future leadership challenges. They have a greater awareness of their personal and social characteristics and are able to identify the interpersonal skills they need to work on. This self-awareness and the ability to assess situations and adapt skills means they will be well prepared when faced with leadership challenges in the future.