20 Years of LEAD

Turning Students into Influential MBAs

by Patricia Houlihan
LEAD collage


In the 1980s, the business world was becoming a very different place. Changes in technology, globalization, and the diversity of the workforce took root. In addition to staying focused on the bottom line, MBAs were expected to know how to manage people. Young executives suddenly needed more than analytical ability, they needed to learn how to 
motivate others. Twenty years ago, the place known for producing “quant jocks” launched an experimental course to teach soft skills. Today, it’s still the only required class in the Full-Time MBA Program.

Chicago MBAs have always been smart — the kind of people who can make a contribution the first day on the job. But in the late 20th century, the business world began to shift: there were rapid advances in technology, markets and economies were globalizing, the workforce was becoming increasingly diverse, and organizations were becoming smaller and flatter. Managers no longer led by edict. They were expected to have communication skills, the ability to influence their peers, and expertise in leading teams of coworkers. Slowly, business schools began to update their curricula to reflect the changing need.

In 1988, BusinessWeek published its first survey of business schools. Chicago Booth ranked number 11 on the list, but when it came to “customer satisfaction,” Chicago MBA students ranked their own school last. “Chicago graduates were highly critical of the lack of balance in the school’s curriculum,” the magazine reported. “The catalog was loaded with courses on quantitative methods, but it paid little or no attention to ‘soft’ management skills.” The dismal ranking confirmed what the administration’s informal surveys of CEOs and recruiters had said: Chicago students were smart and talented, but many lacked the sensitivity and skills that typified good leaders.

Among faculty who saw it as a call to act was Harry Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management, then serving as deputy dean. With the support of then-dean John Gould, Davis reached out to a small group of students to help solve the problem. “The administration set up a broad playing field and encouraged students to come in and do something, not just talk about it,” Davis said. “It was the ultimate grass roots program.”

Among the students were Luis Miranda, ’89, and Bruce Rigal, ’89. While young professionals were drawn to the school by the flexible curriculum and lack of specific required courses, Rigal said, the downside was a lack of social cohesion. Miranda agreed. “Back then, students were scattered. There was no place that we all got together, and some students felt lost,” he said. A 10-member group including Brian Bauer, Chris Cobino Schuster, Jean Gleason, Fred Jubitz, Barbara Mousigian, Melissa Skelton, Wim Steemers, and Jay Weichselbaum, in addition to Miranda and Rigal, recommended the school organize a student retreat to tackle the issue. Fifty students volunteered to brainstorm for a weekend in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, with Davis; John Jeuck, AB ’37, MBA ’38, PhD ’49, Robert Law Professor Emeritus of Business Administration; Marvin Zonis, professor emeritus of business administration; and Dan Tepke, ’82, then chief operating officer for the school. Their goal was to determine how to offer a cohort experience within a curriculum known for its flexibility, and how to introduce students systematically to the so-called soft skills without distracting them from learning the analytical skills that have always been considered a hallmark of the Chicago approach.

The students, faculty, and several staff members who developed the program followed all the usual steps in product development: they led brainstorming for developing course ideas; conducted market research, trying out various components of the course on fellow students; worked out the logistics for implementing the course with about 500 new students; and brought the course to the marketplace, writing lesson plans and serving as coordinators.

The result was LEAD, or Leadership Exploration and Development. Required of all first-year full-time students and scheduled before fall quarter began, the course divided the incoming class into 10 cohorts that would take part in organizational workshops, negotiations games, improvisation exercises, presentations training, and other skills necessary for effective leadership. Importantly, second-year students acted as facilitators, putting them into a leadership role. The group learning component was essential. “We want to expose students to some of the broader issues that define the context in which business takes place,” Davis said at the time.

The students themselves chose the topics that would be taught and how they would be presented. But they added a provision: each year, 40 first-years would adapt the LEAD curriculum to improve it and keep it relevant, and those students would facilitate the course the following year. “This way, we created an environment where first-years who didn’t like something could come in and fix it, rather than just being critics,” Davis said. It also gave the facilitators the chance to act as leaders themselves, getting experience in a supportive environment, a feature that may still be unique among business schools. “This is the only program I know of that puts second-year students in charge of one required MBA course,” he said.

Full-time MBA students who came to Chicago in 1989 found themselves faced with a surprise: a new course had been added, noncredit but required, led by students and their faculty coaches. Davis recalled that some balked, but most apparently approved. When BusinessWeek published its second survey of business schools in 1990, the magazine focused on Chicago, where students had ranked the school number one.

Faculty members immediately saw a difference in student behavior. “The change has been dramatic. The students are more outgoing and aggressive. They’re showing fewer inhibitions in the classroom,” Abbie Smith, Boris and Irene Stern Professor of Accounting, told BusinessWeek in 1990. Faculty unanimously agreed that LEAD should become not just a permanent part of the curriculum, but the only required course for students in the Full-Time MBA Program. To Davis, the support was remarkable. “I’ve been here for 26 years, and I’ve never seen a unanimous faculty vote on anything,” he told the magazine at the time.

Room to Grow

“Every organization should have a sandbox, a playful area where you do experimental things. This is our sandbox,” Davis said of the LEAD program after it was launched. Twenty years later, the school’s willingness to experiment is still important in teaching students who can expect to find themselves in leadership positions in the years ahead, he said. “Ongoing learning is essential for all leaders. If you have the sense that you can never make mistakes, you won’t see much leadership, because it involves taking risks. You need agility and flexibility. You have to confront what doesn’t work and move on.”

While LEAD’s essential lessons have not changed, the curriculum has been tweaked over the past two decades. In spring 2010, facilitators will be asked not just to update the course but to add a module, said Jeff Anderson,’87. Named associate dean for LEAD in 2007, he follows in the footsteps of former directors including Brad Barbeau, Mike Jenner, and Evelyn Williams. “Because of its structure and original principles, the course is flexible and very easy to keep current. Each year, new facilitators bring a new perspective on the challenges they face, and they always have very interesting incremental innovations,” Anderson said. “This year, we’re going to ask them what’s missing. We want them to go further to address new and different topics. We’ll see what they come up with.”

The Value of LEAD

Davis readily admits that not all students appreciate the lessons they learn in LEAD as they take the class, but that doesn’t undermine its ultimate value. “If, for everything you did in life, you did a net present value calculation before you decided to do it, we wouldn’t have a lot of entrepreneurial start-ups,” he said. “You have to have trust that if you stay with it, something of value is going to happen. It may not be the same thing you thought, but you’re going to discover it along the way.”

Alumni with a range of backgrounds and careers have found value in LEAD years later. Among them is Kris Vansanten, ’95, founder and partner of Quanteus Strategic Services in Diegem, Belgium. “I was an international student with limited experience abroad, so LEAD meant a lot to me in terms of experiencing cultural diversity,” he said. “I remember discussions on gender issues, cultural differences, and racial questions that were at the time exciting to me. It opened my mind for differences in opinion, and more important, the acceptance of it. Upon my return, this helped me a lot in my business contacts, but also in my private life.”

Zina Markevicius, ’02, vice president of Roque & Mark Real Estate in Santa Monica, California, echoed the thought. “The network I developed in LEAD includes the most valuable MBA connections I have today,” she said. “I got to know a diverse group of people, and we continue to have a great bond. As a business owner, my LEAD connections have brought me client referrals, industry news, and access all over the world, from India to Venezuela to England to Schaumburg, Illinois.”
Students too can see the long-term lessons. First-year student Robbie Stone said she found value in the educational games. “Through them, I was able to clarify what challenges I will face over the next few years and also to identify the coping strategies I’ll be able to use when times get tough,” she said. Friends heading to law school and medical school envied her LEAD experience, Stone added. “Booth provides students such a light-hearted, exploratory, and well-planned opportunity to transition into the MBA program while deepening our expectations of ourselves and the program itself.”

For Miranda, being able to help create LEAD made a stronger impression than anything else in his two years of business school. “We were involved in creating the only compulsory course in the curriculum,” he said. “The ability to be involved in that transformation is my most singular Chicago experience. It taught me if there’s a problem in life, don’t complain about it, fix it.”


Last Updated 3/5/10