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In June, Professors Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria cochaired a two-day, cross-disciplinary colloquium at HBS on “Leadership: Advancing an Intellectual Discipline.” Organized in conjunction with the Centennial, the event drew nearly ninety faculty and practitioners from around the world. A conversation with Khurana follows.

What was your goal in organizing this event?

We wanted to lay a foundation, to take stock of what we know about leadership across disciplines and create a community among individuals who are studying this phenomenon.

Too often, leadership is not considered a legitimate subject of study in business schools, despite the fact that we face a pressing need for developing more effective leaders. When it is part of the curriculum, it’s often approached in a fragmentary manner. It might be considered from a decision-analysis perspective, or a more sociological approach, or around the question of leading a small team. So even though it’s part of many schools’ missions, it’s not a field of study that academia contributes to on an active basis. We want that to change.

That sounds like a big undertaking. Where did you begin?

There was not even commonality in the definition of what a leader is and what leadership behaviors are, so we started by developing a conversation around those questions. It’s difficult, because the traditional tools we have for conducting research and addressing a topic are not well-suited for the dynamic, multidisciplinary nature of leadership. Leaders change as they lead. Nonetheless, we did reach some basic insights through the papers that were presented.

Psychology, for example, highlights the importance of motives and identification with groups, norms, and culture. In economics we talked about the role leadership plays in coordination and how economic models can help us understand that. History points us to the role of the biographer and the context in which a person lived. Sociology shows us that you can’t study a leader in isolation; there’s a relational construct between a person and society. Clinical psychology gets into the underlying motivation for people who seek leadership positions. In political science, we saw the distinction between hard power, which is more coercive, and the soft power of leadership through example, persuasion, and culture. Leadership is a complicated phenomenon that is not easily broken down through just one lens; it’s an accumulation of these perspectives, which is what we’re trying to get at.

What were some of the tangible outputs of the colloquium?

Next spring Harvard Business Press will publish an edited volume of the colloquium papers, which we expect to serve as the foundation for a doctoral course on leadership research and scholarship. We’ve also established the Leadership Research Network as an electronic repository for scholarship and the exchange of ideas. And next year we’ll hold a follow-up conference on whether leadership can be taught.

Are leadership qualities the same as they’ve always been?

The world is crying out for a different type of leader. The challenges we face to address big issues like pandemics, sustainability, global climate change, and entrenched inequality are not just technical. We’re in the midst of a leadership crisis because many of these problems require coordination and cooperation between the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. One of our exercises involved thinking about the problems we’re confronting today and the skills and capabilities leaders will need to effectively address those problems. From there we can think about the curricula, research agendas, and questions arising from that.

It’s worth pointing out that a third of the colloquium’s participants were practitioners — people who have practiced and written about leadership. They commented on our work in a very constructive way and talked about what we were missing and which insights we should develop further.

How is leadership tied in with business education?

The model we talked about has three elements: learning, doing, and being. In higher education, historically we’ve been really good at the first aspect, and we’re starting to develop simulations and external activities to take some of this into practice. Where we haven’t been so great is being — having a sense of self as a leader and understanding how others experience you. In the modern classroom, we tend to shy away from that, yet any real model of developing and educating leaders that does not address that component is only a partial education in leadership.

We hear a lot about the context of leadership situations, given the more global, networked nature of the world. Is it overstating it to say that the figure of the heroic CEO will fade into the past?

That’s a complicated question. It’s hard to envision what leadership looks like in a networked world versus a more formal, hierarchical model. It highlights the fact that one of our big challenges is the word “leadership” itself, which means everything and nothing at the same time. It’s similar to a word like globalization, which has been so broadly applied and abused it’s lost its analytical traction. Without some level of precision and common vocabulary, it makes things difficult to research, which is why our first goal was to get some sense of what each field means when it uses the word.

Won’t some people argue that leadership is too nebulous a quality to define, that you’ll know it when you see it?

The benefits of stem cell research are somewhat nebulous, but studying them is still a legitimate activity. People need to view the study of leadership in the same light, with outlets for publishing, doctoral programs, and opportunities for faculty research.

— Julia Hanna

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