The Bad Habits You Learn in School
by John Coleman
It can be tough to help new college graduates adjust to the real world. Joey, a 22-year-old, Ivy League graduate who joined one of my consulting teams, was a great example. He was bright, hardworking, and motivated. But he had bad habits that were hard to break. Joey would become so focused on the perfect answer to a problem, he wouldn't consider implementation. He feared failure so much that he would hide his mistakes until they grew worse. He was only interested in getting his own work right — rarely helping the rest of the team proactively. And he saw the world in terms of hierarchy: I was his "boss," and no one else's opinion really mattered.
Joey isn't real — more of a composite of many young people I've worked with. But his flaws are undeniable. The traits above are ones I've seen time and again out of many recent graduates ill-prepared to handle true leadership in an organization.
There is an ongoing debate about whether leadership can be taught, and whether business schools, in particular, are teaching it. There are fair arguments on both sides, but I would broaden the discussion. Our entire education system, from elementary school to graduate school, is poorly constructed to teach young people leadership. Schools do many things well, but they often cultivate habits that can be detrimental to future leaders. Given that most of us spend 13-20 years in educational institutions, those habits can be hard to break.
Consider first the emphasis schools have on authority. Schools are hierarchical: The teacher is the authority in the classroom. Principals or deans preside over teachers and professors. Seniors "rank" higher than juniors, and so on. In our years in the educational system, many of us become obsessed with hierarchy. We think we're leaders if we're the "boss," and if we're not the boss, we should simply do as we're told. In reality, even the most senior people in organizations can't rely solely on hierarchy, particularly given the much needed talents, experiences, and intelligence of the others who surround them. Leadership is an activity, not a position, a distinction explored deeply by Ron Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers. Many great leaders like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela have led others, despite having little to no formal authority, and writers are now exploring methods for leading without formal authority. While some hierarchy may be needed, leaders who learn to lean too hard on formal authority often find themselves and their organizations frustrated, stunted, and stagnant.
Schools also teach us to deal with information as if it is certain and unchanging, when there's rarely a stable "right answer." In my first job, I was constantly frustrated by the lack of guidance I received. If you gave me a textbook, I could learn almost anything. But in the workplace, there were no textbooks. Real world problems are complex. They evolve. They're organizational and analytical. And success is often driven as much (or more) by successful and rapid implementation as by developing the "correct" approach. Understanding that there's rarely one right answer can make a person more adaptive, agile, and open to the thoughts of their peers. But that understanding is rarely cultivated through textbooks and multiple choice tests.
Given this dependency on the "right" answer, we're also ingrained to have a misconception about making mistakes. Students most fear the dreaded "F," but for most leaders, failure is an essential precursor to success. Steve Jobs found that being fired from Apple in the 1980s freed him to be more imaginative. He once said,
I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life.
Critically, these failures teach us to reflect and to ask questions — of ourselves and of others — so that we can learn and grow (one of life's worst failures can be wasting a failure). And failure itself indicates that we are taking on challenging tasks and stretching the limits of our current capabilities.
Finally, while many schools tell us to serve others, they are rarely structured to actively show us that leadership is serving others. In most educational environments, our primary goal is to serve ourselves — to improve our individual grades, to compete for individual positions, and to maximize our own employment, college, or grad school placements. But as Bill George once said in a panel discussion on next generation leadership, "We are not heroes of our own journey." People follow leaders who care for them, who share their vision, and who are dedicated to serving a cause greater than one's self.
A lot of people are raising questions about the way business schools and corporations teach leadership, but we need to dramatically broaden the scope of that question. In a world that's growing ever flatter and more complex, we need societies full of capable leaders. But the only way to raise those leaders properly is to structure our educational system — from elementary school through graduate school — to train them.
John Coleman is a coauthor of the new HBR Press book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders. Follow him on Twitter at @johnwcoleman.