30 years of LEAD: Reflecting with Professor Harry Davis

Chicago Booth is known for its flexible curriculum, which allows students to curate a tailored MBA experience by picking and choosing the courses they want to do. In fact, there is only one class that is mandatory for everyone: Leadership Effectiveness and Development (LEAD). The course is designed to enhance one’s self-awareness and interpersonal effectiveness by working in teams and going through modules such as cross-cultural communication, personality development, and feedback and coaching.

Each year, 40 second-year students (called LEAD facilitators) are selected by faculty to design and deliver this flagship course to an incoming class of ~600 students. I had the pleasure of being a LEAD facilitator this year, an experience that has been the highlight of my time at business school.

But in a school that is known for cutting-edge research in finance and economics—and has faculty that is at the forefront of their fields—why is a student-run course on leadership the only mandatory class? I got the amazing opportunity to sit down with Professor Harry Davis to reflect on the journey of LEAD, 30 years after he started the program in 1989.

Nadeem: To kick things off, what was the motivation behind starting a leadership program at Booth? How did LEAD come about?

Prof. Harry Davis: To answer that I need to give you some background on some of the things that happened at the school that led to the creation of LEAD. I started Chicago’s first Laboratory course in marketing in 1978. The idea was to work with a client and a team of students over two academic quarters to recommend a real new product opportunity. The longer I ran the course, my respect and admiration for our students to take charge and bring these very challenging projects to life only increased. I always had the sense that our students could contribute more to school than the opportunities we were giving them.

In addition to this, in 1987 we had done interviews with C-suite executives around their perception of Chicago Booth students, compared to other select institutions. What came out was very clear. Chicago Booth students were seen to be very smart and knowledgeable. But the perception was that they did not have the skills to transfer that knowledge into actions in a meaningful way, while working with other people. In 1998, Business Week published their rankings of business schools based for the first time on a survey of both recruiters and graduating students. Recruiters ranked us fourth, but our own students rated us well below many other schools. We ended up 11th, no longer in the top ten. The primary concern of students was that there was a limited focus on what we call “soft skills,” which led to students being under-prepared for the business world.

These things coming together made it clear. We needed to start a program where we use the framework of the New Product Laboratory and create a curriculum for incoming students focused on leadership. The special thing would be that the students who created the program, would execute it! It must be said that this had never been tried before—I lost some sleep but had a great sense of belief that our students could pull this off!

Nadeem: How was the experience in the first few years of trying to put LEAD together?

Prof. Harry Davis: The first year was interesting. I literally ran around the hallways, trying to see if some of the students would sign up. To their credit, they did! I can always remember the first class I went to and there was a student who was about to begin presenting. I thought to myself “will all of these first-year students get up and walk out?” because it was just a second year delivering it. But I remember the second-year student being incredible, and off the program went!

Later, there were a few students who came to my office complaining about the program, and I said to them, “I see this program as a work in progress, and so if you think you can make it better, come join us and be a facilitator.” And a number of those people did, and that spirit is what keeps the program going.

Nadeem: As you mentioned, this is a completely student-run program. What was the response from faculty and the administration in the early years?

Prof. Harry Davis: There is a Chicago value of respect for the individual. The program started in 1989, then I left the Dean’s office in 1993 and the incoming Dean was very much committed to continuing the program. At the time, a lot of our faculty had not done research or thought deeply about leadership, and so there was a sense that this program was indeed complementing the efforts of the faculty. Moreover, this was very much in line with the school’s commitment to supporting lifelong learning and leadership.

The interesting thing is that there was a faculty vote two or three years after the program started to make this a required course. Even though there wasn’t any faculty teaching this program, it was the only course that was unanimously voted by faculty to be a required course at Chicago Booth.

Nadeem: You mentioned LEAD is a gateway to reflection and introspection at Booth. How do you think LEAD fits into the overall Chicago Booth approach towards leadership development?

Prof. Harry Davis: One of the early Deans of the school, Allen Wallis, when reflecting on his tenure as Dean wrote an article that ended with the following sentence: The business of schools of business is preparing our graduates for lifelong learning from experience.

I don’t think we have fully executed that statement. We all know lifelong learning is important, but how do we learn from our experiences? Every day and every month we have hundreds of experiences—but are we learning the right lessons from those experiences, or are we not learning anything at all? My belief is that we need to give people the tools and frameworks to collect, observe, and reflect on the data they are collecting from their lives each day. I strongly believe that if we can prepare our students to do this, we would have made a major dent in leadership development. It is not about throwing in a couple more courses but having this overall approach and strategy where we tend to the whole person for their whole lives.

LEAD is too short to accomplish that. But it is an important signal to send out that the school really cares about preparing students for lifelong learning from experience. LEAD will help you identify where you are strong and where you are not, and then there are courses designed to help you deep dive into those areas of enquiry.

Nadeem: My last question for you is that when people come into any business school, they are focused on the short run—identifying classes to take, jobs to apply to, and what friends to make. Whereas, some of the things that LEAD teaches, are more focused on long-term growth. In an environment of instant gratification, how do you convince people to take a long-term perspective and focus on lifelong learning?

Prof. Harry Davis: That is a very important question, and it is a real challenge. It is a challenge that we as educators must take, to ensure that we don’t focus on short-term issues but prepare people for the long-term journey. And I think to some sense, we do take on that challenge. At Booth, we focus on teaching the fundamentals of the basic disciplines—economics, statistics, behavioral science—that survive very well over one’s life. I think the same thing is true with what we are trying to do with leadership. We are trying to develop skills that are not just relevant for the first job but are helping people get a better sense of who they are and how they can become better for every job they take on.

Can we compete with the short term? I think we have to. Does that always make us popular? No. However, I don’t believe that we can look at our students as just customers that want immediate gratification. That will be irresponsible of us if we want to stay true to our goal of lifelong learning.

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