Practice, principles and stance: Your journey is just beginning
Today we honour and celebrate those who have completed the MBA at Henley. After all, completion was the whole point of starting. As you stand where you stand today, you may feel you have climbed up a very long, and sometimes very hard cliff to get here. You should enjoy this feeling, not just because the journey was rewarding, but because from here, and from now on, you can see further.
Tradition has it that words from faculty at graduations should offer a statement of congratulations and best wishes for the future. In line with tradition I am very happy to join others from Henley, and those among your close family and friends, in warmly praising you for this achievement.
Conventional wisdom then says the speaker should offer some words of advice, perhaps including the fruit of their own experience. On that point, I am reluctant to burden you with my experience and even less willing to dump any advice on you. Another person’s view can be very informative, but in the end personal wisdom must emerge from your thoughts and experiences, not vicariously from someone else’s.
So, conventional wisdom is not much use now. With your permission, though, perhaps I could offer you a little bit of unconventional wisdom; some observations and final food for thought.
As you close this intensive period of study, which has seen you invest your time, your effort, and your money in a management education, the first thing I would like to suggest is that… when you get down to it… management and leadership are about three things. At heart, they are a matter of:
- what you do – your practice;
- what you know about – the principles, theories, models and concepts;
- and who you are – your stance.
Practice. Principles. Stance.
Of these, the third is by far the most important, and the one that – if you were paying proper attention – is the biggest gift an MBA can deliver. There is good news and bad news in all of this.
First let’s consider management as what a manager does – their actions, behaviours and skills. Conventional wisdom says you are the sum of your past experiences. You are often judged, evaluated, and given incentives and instructions on this basis. This is another way of saying that your worth as a manager is how other people perceive you. The bad news about that is what you have been good at until now may not be what you need for a fulfilling and successful career in the future. You cannot rely only on your past to inform your next move. The unconventional wisdom here is that you are not bound by your CV. The leader’s task, apart from inspiring others, is to generate as many choices for response as possible in the face of what is going to happen next, and this means you must be open to new things. Your MBA has already given you some of that freedom in your practice. In that practice, what matters now is how well prepared you are to see and take all the opportunities in the present.
If what you do is about experience, then what you know is about expertise, which was clearly a big part of the MBA. Conventional wisdom says that knowledge is critically important to thoughtful action. Going forward, keeping up-to-date in your knowledge and skills through inquiry and study is your obligation. Staying informed is not a choice, but a responsibility you have. You have been studying the principles of business, management, and leadership intensively and, the bad news is that you’re going to forget nearly all the content of your MBA, if that hasn’t already happened. The good news is that this really doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. Management education is not a memory test, and no business problem arrives neatly compartmentalised in a silo labelled “marketing”, or “finance” or “human resources”. The real world of practice is complex, unpredictable and interconnected. You now have a different kind of knowledge, which is an educated response to problems that arise. This critical eye will be useful to you in two ways. First is the realisation that, whether as a leader or a follower, there is more power in not knowing the answer than jumping in as if you do. “I don’t know” is a very powerful route to knowledge because it forces you find out, to ask questions. In that sense, you are now explorers. And add to this the skill you have developed in your ability to learn, you are also now a critical thinker, a skill that will remain with you throughout your career.
Doing and knowing, practice and theory, walk hand in hand. Properly knowing this is the competitive advantage many of you seek in your personal careers. But when it comes to what makes a manager a manager, or a leader a leader, there is a third element, and it is the question of who you are.
This I call Stance. Stance is your attitude and orientation, your mind-set, and character and your beliefs. It is your self-awareness as a human being (and everyone you work with or work for is a human being). This is, of course, the territory of Personal Development at Henley.
The noted American journalist Sydney J Harris once said:
“Ninety per cent of the world’s woe comes from people not knowing themselves, their abilities, their frailties, and even their real virtues. Most of us go almost all the way through life as complete strangers to ourselves – so how can we know anyone else?”
Your stance is the key to achieving health and well-being not just for you, but for your organisation, the industry it is part of, and the social and natural environment that all of us depend on. In the end, that’s what value means. Here, the good news is that there is NO bad news. You already know who you are, because you know how to reflect. An MBA should teach you that you must never stop learning about yourself. You can’t afford to stop learning, and this is the basis for humility and strength as a leader.
The MBA is about asking better questions, not coming up with neater answers. To strive for learning is not to seek perfection, but to know and accept that there are many blind spots in your experience and knowledge.
As leaders you may then have the wisdom to transform and affect the world.
- Dr Chris Dalton is Associate Professor of Management Learning and module convener for Personal Development (PD) at Henley Business School and teaches on the MBA and DBA programmes. He is a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Soka University in Japan. Chris has a PhD in Management Learning and Leadership from Lancaster University (2013) and an MBA from Henley Business School (2000). He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA). Chris runs corporate workshops and seminars related to management development in South Africa, central Europe and the Middle East. His research is focused on the use of reflection in personal development in post-experience management education. His first book, The Every Day MBA, was published at the beginning of 2015 and his second, Brilliant Strategy for Business, in 2016. In 2019, he published MBA Day By Day.