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Message from Morsing Holistic Skillsets in Leadership Education
30 April, 2021 New York, United States

Holistic Skillsets in Leadership Education

Dear Friends of PRME,

In the wake of a global pandemic, rising inequalities, and environmental disasters, it has become increasingly clear that leaders with creative thinking are in scarce supply. These humanitarian catastrophes have surfaced ‘wicked problems’ where no predefined methods are offered and where novel innovative solutions, curiosity and critical-constructive problem resolution is deeply in demand. According to Harvard Professors Rakesh Khurana and Daniel Penrice[i], leadership schools have failed in addressing this task because they have prioritized an instrumental approach, reducing future managers to ‘mere craftsmen’, encouraging them to strive for a corporate-centric short-termism economic profit and the best possible salary as the ultimate goal.

In fact, there remains a significant ‘leadership skill gap’ between the skills needed in practice (creative and innovative, society-centric) and the skills provided by business schools (instrumental and cognitive, business-centric).

Obviously, this does not mean that we will not teach how business can generate an income. But it means that we must teach students to consider the role of business in a society where ‘the corporation’ is no longer at the center of the stakeholder model but one among many other significant stakeholders. ‘Society’ is at the center. And how to serve society in new creative ways is the main business purpose.

One challenge to achieve this goal is that global and local leaders, whom we trust to solve the world’s global challenges, are educated with a specific focus on advancing solely their cognitive skills, i.e. their intellectual competencies. Arguably, this skill represents a significant baseline to make informed and ethical decisions, but it is not sufficient. In a recent white paper concerned with how we educate children to have agency and ability to address complex global challenges, a group of researchers from Temple, Harvard, Cambridge and Pennsylvania Universities[ii] argue that exposure to abstract concepts that are not connected to children’s real-life experience is likely to lead to shallow memorization of information and will not develop the critical and innovative individuals that are needed. Their research points to the need to integrate a more holistic set of skills in education, that combines cognitive skills with social, emotional, creative and physical skills. It is an intriguing question of how higher education may learn from child education.

Interestingly and positively, in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, management education has been significantly pushed to adopt pedagogies reaching beyond the training of students’ cognitive skills. We have been challenged to re-imagine how to retain student engagement within the confinement of a screen and this restriction has surfaced some innovative pedagogies that bring social, emotional, creative and physical skills together.

For example, an aboriginal elder and leader in the community has produced a series of videos for the University of Wollongong in Australia, that integrate the cognitive skills with the physical, creative and social communicative skills. He talks about kinship and the journey of life and asks the students, participating from different regions of the world, to individually produce an artifact that represents these concepts. The students then bring the artifact to the virtual classroom and explain how this relate to leadership, decision-making and sustainability in their own cultures. In this instance, students are not learning about aboriginal leadership. But rather they are learning about leadership in an aboriginal perspective and transferring this to their own contexts. In that transferal they also learn to respect aboriginal cultures, realizing that there is much we can learn from ‘the Other’.

This is one inspiring example. Fortunately, there are a large number of other inspiring examples. The main positive note here is that the pandemic may accelerate the integration of a holistic skillset perspective in leadership education, that we had not anticipated and not dared to imagine only one year ago.

I hope that you are all able to stay safe, well - and imaginative.

Warm regards,

Mette Morsing

[i] Khurana, R. and Penrice, D. (2010). Business Education: The American Trajectory. In: Morsing, M. and Rovira, A.S. (Eds) Business Schools and their Contribution to Society. Sage: London

[ii] Zosh, J.S., Hopkins, E.J., Jensen. H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Hirsch-Pasek, K., Lynneth, S. and Whitebreadd, D. (2017). White Paper: Learning through play: A review of the evidence. LEGO Foundation: Billund (https://www.legofoundation.com...)

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