The ‘Softer’ Side of Management: How Executive Courses in Leadership are Evolving

The ‘Softer’ Side of Management: How Executive Courses in Leadership are Evolving

Programs in mindfulness, inclusive and purpose-driven leadership take center-stage

Forget about corporate finance, strategic management and SWOT analysis. Some of the most popular — and valuable — executive education courses are focused on the behavioral and human side of business. 

Non-degree “open” executive courses for managers in topics such as “positive leadership” have taken on a renewed importance, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to calls for greater diversity in the workforce and ways to cope with the stresses of remote working.

“As environments become more dynamic, the need to effectively empathize, connect and influence grows,” says Tom Hunsaker, associate dean of innovation for Thunderbird School of Global Management, at Arizona State University. “Schools can play a tremendous role, but this requires a shift from simply business to a focus on well-rounded leadership.”

An increased focus on ‘soft’ skills

Business schools have historically placed more weight on the harder science of management, and critics claim they may have played a role in perpetuating the traditional command-and-control style of leadership that has been blamed for increasing presenteeism and for impairing organizational performance.

But schools appear to be responding to calls for greater emphasis on cultivating social and emotional skills with the creation of fresh executive programs covering mental health and wellbeing as well as diversity, equity and inclusion.

Numerous surveys have found that organizations from across industries prefer job candidates who can work in diverse teams, build networks, problem-solve and prioritize. More recently, it has been said that managers must address mental health concerns, which costs employers vast sums in lost productivity and support costs.

“Usually, the so-called ‘soft’ skills are the ones that are toughest to learn and most consequential for one’s career,” says Dave Mayer, professor of business ethics, management and organizations at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Business schools, the breeding grounds for the world’s future business leaders, might have an outsized role to play in fostering more enlightened management skills.

“Business schools have a very important role to play in training well-rounded leaders,” says Vincent Mak, director of programs at Cambridge Judge Business School. “This is especially true in the current context, with the serious disruptions of the pandemic, as well as other recent socio-political upheavals, which call for more awareness of environmental, social and governance issues.”

You can’t automate leadership

The idea of training well-rounded leaders is gaining momentum among business schools. The University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business recently announced the “Humanistic Leadership” series of executive education courses, aimed at helping managers navigate artificial intelligence.

Although AI is displacing many workers, these systems deliver best when partnered with humans. The notion of what is “hard” and what is “soft” skills must be reframed, says Tim Blakesly, assistant dean and executive director of executive education at USC Marshall.

“Optimizing supply chains, production flow [and] inventory turns, are all amenable to displacement by technological advances including AI and machine learning,” he explains.

But the distinctively human social and emotional skills, including judgment and decision-making, are not so easily automatable, he says.

USC Marshall has executive courses in mindfulness, inclusive leadership, purpose-driven leadership and how to build “psychologically safe” workplaces. “We are driven by a set of humanistic values that we see as essential for successful leadership during times of great upheaval and change,” says Blakesly.

Michigan Ross has number of executive classes that specialize in how to lead others and how to lead oneself, including the Practicing Positive Leadership course. “Many people think that social skills or empathy are things you either have or you do not have,” says Mayer. “However, research tells us that we can develop these skills, just like learning a new language. If we create habits around being empathetic, for example, it not only becomes a stronger skill, it becomes a part of one’s identity.”

Cambridge Judge offers the Transformational Leadership course. In addition, there are group consulting projects on which participants develop the requisite social and emotional skills to steer themselves through the intensive teamwork.

“It is important for leaders to be caring, to be understanding, and to earnestly address mental health issues in relation to employee workload and group dynamics,” says Mak, a professor of marketing and decision science at Judge.

“At a broader level, equality, diversity and inclusion issues are very much at the forefront in today’s world. To address these issues within organizations, leaders must develop the ability to empathize with different perspectives.”

Rather than offering a specific course in humanistic leadership, Thunderbird School of Global Management seeks to produce well-rounded leaders in every one of its many executive courses. “The faculty challenge people to consider alternative views or take a position other than their own,” says Hunsaker.

He says the most effective teaching methods for developing these skills are opportunities to apply the learning to work, along with candid peer coaching and assessment. “We should develop the person, not the output,” Hunsaker says. “Leadership in today’s environment is more than setting objectives and holding people accountable – it’s helping people feel that their worth is beyond a metric.”

There is research highlighting that people outperform in just about every vital category – creativity, productivity, even sales output – when they feel positive about their work and how the organization and their direct leaders value them, he points out. “This performance boost is good for society and business.”


Related Business Schools

Arizona State - Carey


Michigan - Ross

Cambridge - Judge

USC - Marshall

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