Waqas Younas

Is course material at business schools for leaders?

August 05, 2019


The mantra of most business schools, including the one I attended, is to create leaders.

I have recently been reading interviews of successful leaders. In those interviews, these leaders recommend books on management. Comparing these recommended books with business schools’ curricula led to a concerning realization: management books that business schools typically teach are not those that good leaders recommend.

My own business school’s curriculum did not include a single book that these leaders mention. This set off alarm bells for me. For the claim of a swimming school to make great swimmers would weaken if it chose to ignore books or techniques that great swimmers recommend.

Why should I pay attention to books recommended by successful leaders?

Because a successful leader knows hazards (involved in business) and things to avoid. He is aware of difficult situations that may arise and the kind of training one needs to survive. He knows how to deal with failures, and the type of people who could be saviors. If he recommends a book on leadership, then I would take that not as a banal suggestion but as the most credible recommendation.

In the interviews I read, it was clear that these books shaped the leaders’ thinking. This thinking catapulted their companies not to mediocrity but to success. Success that created innovative products, thousands of jobs and millions of opportunities.

Let’s now look at management books that these leaders are recommending:

Drew Houston founded a billion-dollar company called Dropbox. The books he recommended were not familiar to MBA students I talked to. Some of his favorites are:

  • High Output Management (Andrew S. Grove, 1995)
  • The Hard Things about Hard Things (Ben Horowitz, 2014)
  • The Effective Executive (Peter Drucker, 2006)

Tobi Lütke is an entrepreneur who created a billion-dollar company called Shopify. In an interview, he also mentioned Grove’s High Output Management, as well as the following:

  • The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Marc Levinson, 2016)

In his interview, Marc Andreessen, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist (VC), mentions a few books. He also mentions a few on his Twitter account. I consider book recommendations by someone like him particularly important. For not only has he created successful companies, but is also in a unique position as a VC to observe other companies fail and grow. His recommendations include High Output Management, too, and the following among many others:

  • The Four Steps to the Epiphany (Steve Blank, 2013)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman, 2013)
  • Thinking in bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts (Annie Duke, 2018)
  • The Courage to Be Disliked: The Japanese Phenomenon That Shows You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness (Ichiro Kishimi & Fumitake Koga, 2018)

Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger are partners and successful businessmen. They read widely, too. Warren recommends:

  • The Intelligent Investor (Benjamin Graham, 1949)
  • Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits (Philip Fisher & Ken Fisher, 1996)
  • The Clash of Cultures (John C. Bogle & Arthur Levitt, 2012)
  • Business Adventures (John Brooks, 1969)

Munger recommends the following, among many others:

  • Only the Paranoid Survive (Andrew S. Grove, 1999)
  • The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (David Landes, 1999)
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Robert Caldini, 1984)
  • Models of My Life (Herbert A Simon, 1996)
  • Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity (John Gribbin, 2005)

MBA graduates I talked to had not read these books as part of their curriculum. I was not taught them at my business school, either.

It is correct that these leaders I have listed do not form a representative sample. But we cannot ignore that they have created companies valued in the billions. They are the torch bearers of the modern industrial revolution. What they say, as far as leadership is concerned, should not be simply ignored but wholly considered.

It is also true that MBA schools cannot teach every great management book in the world. But not teaching good ones that have influenced great leaders indicates that their curriculum needs to be updated, particularly when the core mission of business schools is to create future leaders.

I should also mention one more thing in passing. Surprisingly, many people I talked to had not read a single book since graduating from business school. Isn’t it odd that even after sixteen years of education, we don’t become lifelong learners? The onus is on individuals, but are not schools also responsible for this?

Business school students should be exposed to learning material that influenced great leaders. It is now time that business schools update their course material.