Leadership development beyond the dean’s office



Dr Patrick Cullen, AACSB International

It is widely recognised that business schools face formidable challenges in a dynamic environment characterised by intense global competition, financial pressures, and technological innovations.

Many believe that ‘the business model of business schools is under attack’ (Ortalo-Mane, 2014). And there are calls for business schools to ‘disrupt or be disrupted’ (Holtom, and Dierdorff, 2013). In this context, the ability to lead effectively and initiate change is required throughout business schools – not only in the dean’s office. Although many business school deans and senior administrators have identified the need for programmes that develop leadership capabilities among faculty and administrators beyond the dean’s office, few of them provide such opportunities, which is ironic given the resources many schools devote to leadership programmes for the students and executives they educate. Conversations between AACSB staff and business school deans and senior administrators have confirmed this leadership development gap. We learned that for many the move into a leadership position had not been part of a long-term career plan. Usually very little, if any, directly relevant formal training for the demands of the leadership role was provided.

Recognising an opportunity to help AACSB’s member schools address this leadership gap amongst faculty and administrators beyond the dean’s office, AACSB undertook a research project consisting of semi-structured interviews and a survey. This yielded over 400 responses from deans and a range of senior faculty administrators such as heads of departments, associate deans, and assistant deans. When asked to elaborate on capabilities that are particularly difficult to develop in business school leaders, several clear themes emerged:

(i) The ability to lead change, especially in the context of innovation, and in a low authority environment.
(ii) The ability to think strategically and creatively while integrating multiple perspectives.
(iii) The ability to adopt a business school-wide perspective in building, maintaining, and repairing trust, which involves resolving conflict, coaching, and mentoring.
(iv) The ability to communicate effectively, including effectively managing difficult conversations.

Many interviewees explained that the move to a leadership position within a business school requires a shift in mindset from that of an individual faculty member to a team member who understands that the needs of the entire school supersede those of any sub-unit. For a faculty member who has been previously rewarded for their individual accomplishments and mentored by colleagues in their discipline, this is often a difficult transition that requires consistent support and thoughtful advice.

Beyond a shift in mindset, interviewees stressed that effective leadership in a business school context requires faculty members to develop a set of capabilities that are very different from the discipline-based and theory-driven knowledge and skills pursued in doctoral programmes and required for scholarly publications. Effective leadership is predicated on the ability to build, maintain (and, if necessary, rebuild) trust and respect throughout the business school. The ability to manage conflict, persuade, and build coalitions is vital to initiating change when working with faculty members. Equally important, and closely related, is the development of effective communication skills.

As with leadership development in any field, the key to success lies in the transition from ‘knowing’ to ‘doing.’ Yet, as several interviewees remarked, faculty members and administrators should not start learning how to lead when they undertake their first leadership position. The stakes are too high, and mistakes can cause long-term damage. That is why AACSB is responding with a programme that develops leadership capabilities in faculty members and administrators throughout business schools. The programme – Leading in the Academic Enterprise – provides custom designed pedagogical tools, such as case studies and reflective exercises, created specifically for the business school context. AACSB is not alone in offering such programmes. ABS and EFMD also provide services to their members in this area.

In this time of rapid change, with business schools facing threats and searching for new opportunities more intensely than in their past, the drive to innovate and engage with their constituencies for mutual benefit calls for leadership throughout business schools. There are clear signs that business schools are moving in this direction, and AACSB is committed to helping its members as they develop their leadership capacity more broadly and deeply.

Patrick Cullen : patrick.cullen@aacsb.edu


Holtom, B. and Dierdorff, E. (Eds.) (2013) Disrupt or Be Disrupted: A Blueprint for Change in Management Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ortalo-Mane, F. (2014) Dean's Corner: The Future Business School: Restaurant, Buffet, or Club? AACSB eNEWSLINE, April.


You can download the full leadership series as a PDF publication here