By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University
How do you become a leader of people? One traditional path is to go to business school and take a bunch of business and management classes. Another path involves business and management workshops.
But after all that, do you become a leader? Or are some people just predisposed to being good leaders?
Start an arts and humanities degree program at American Public University.
Are Business Leaders Born or Made?
The path to becoming a manager and eventually a leader is not a straight or obvious path. Some people become managers early in their careers and are able to lead people because of something innate. They possess an inner quality that other people who have similar personality traits recognize and give them a chance to be a leader.
Then there are others who take a long time to even get the chance to lead. They have to change their personalities to a point that prepares them for leadership.
In an interesting report, Development Dimensions International (DDI) published “High-Resolution Leadership,” a report that used the feedback from “15,000 DDI leadership assessment participants ranging from frontline leaders to the C-suite.” This report contains numerous sub-reports that go over different aspects and skills associated with leadership, including “Leader Skill Shake-Up” (skills needed to be a leader over time), “The Money Skills” (leadership competencies that drive growth) and “The CEO Profile” (what CEOs excel at and struggle with).
Which Degrees Enable Students to Become Leaders?
In the sub-report, “Not Merely a Matter of Degree,” DDI looks at which degrees demonstrate typical leadership skills. These skills included financial acumen, business savvy, compelling communication, driving execution, driving for results, entrepreneurship, influence and inspiring others.
The different degrees that were rated in the sub-report were business, engineering, law, humanities, information technology (IT), natural sciences and social sciences. Each degree had a rating of strength, mid-range strength or weakness. The results were as follows:
- Business: five strengths
- Humanities: five strengths and two weaknesses
- Natural sciences: two strengths and two weaknesses
- Law: two strengths and three weaknesses
- Social sciences: one strength and one weakness
- Information technology: one strength and two weaknesses
- Engineering: six weaknesses
An interesting and honest comment made in the report states that “A leader’s educational degree, though often earned long before the person reaches upper management, remains a potentially powerful influence due to the knowledge and skill acquired through this formative experience.” This is a powerful statement because you change from the time you get your degree. But the person you become is shaped by the degree you earn in many subtle and obvious ways just like how we have all changed in the last five or 10 years in subtle and obvious ways.
Why Business Degrees Scored the Highest in DDI’s ‘Not Merely a Matter of Degree’
Why did business degrees score the best in this sub-report? Business had the following skills as a strength: financial acumen, business savvy, driving execution, entrepreneurship and influence. The skills that were labeled mid-range were compelling communication and driving for results, and there were no weaknesses.
People with business degrees scored well because the skills rated are typically important for business majors. According to the sub-report’s authors, “Business majors — the most common degree across all senior leaders assessed — outperformed other degrees on five of eight skill areas.”
Does this mean people with business degrees are the best leaders? Maybe. As the sub-report stated, business degrees were the most common degree amongst senior leaders. However, the report did not go into the quality of the leader.
Why Humanities Scored a Respectable Second Place
Humanities degrees scored a highly respectable second amongst the degrees mentioned in the sub-report. Humanities had the following skills as strengths: compelling communication, driving for results, entrepreneurship, influence and inspiring others. The mid-range skill was driving execution, and financial acumen and business savvy were weaknesses.
The performance of humanities degrees is a welcome surprise for humanities majors of the world. As the sub-report noted, “Humanities graduates struggled with business savvy and financial acumen but outperformed other degrees in many skills…Many humanities programs incorporate debating, communicating, and critical thinking, which would contribute to well-rounded graduates in these fields.”
Do people with humanities degrees make great leaders? Perhaps. Because of their background in the liberal arts and the humanities, they know what it means to understand people, have good verbal and written communication skills, and are great critical thinkers. Humanities graduates have a broad array of very important and transferable skills.
Other Degrees and Specialized Skills
The other degrees rated in the DDI report all fared poorly when they were compared to typical business skills. This makes sense; engineering and information technology are specialized degrees that focus on skills that business and the humanities do not have.
For instance, how would a business major fare with software development or putting together the schematics for a new electric engine? Poorly. How would a business or humanities major fare when he or she had to read a court case and mitigate risk for their company? Poorly.
Leadership skills are not unique to business, but they are skills that are not emphasized or taught in other fields. Instructors preparing students to enter fields other than business should start teaching leadership.
Similarly, companies should offer leadership training to everyone. They cannot expect that every up-and-coming potential leader will have been exposed to thorough managerial and leadership skills; the negative impact of a bad manager can be devastating.
Obtaining Business and Humanities Degrees Results in Better Leaders
The outstanding finding in this sub-report, “Not Merely a Matter of Degree,” is not that one degree or the other provides the best training to be a leader, but that each degree has strengths and possible shortcomings. That is why, from the limited findings of this report (they did not include any of the hard data or survey devices), the best training for up-and-coming leaders is a degree in the humanities and a degree in business. Having a bachelor’s and a master’s in these two academic fields gives students a wide breadth of knowledge and understanding about the world around them while preparing them for leadership.
If a student gets a B.A. in philosophy, for instance, that student will acquire amazing critical thinking skills, logic and the ability to argue like a philosopher. When that same student then gets an MBA, the student will then acquire financial acumen and business savvy.
Similarly, if a student gets a B.A. in business administration, that student will acquire financial acumen and business savvy. To obtain an M.A. in humanities, that student will have read the great books of human history and developed better written and oral communication skills. That student will also know how to influence and inspire others and understand what it means to be human.
Preparing to Be A Future Leader
Becoming a leader takes years of hard work, collaboration with others around you (leaders, peers, and employees) and careful reflection. Getting any one degree while in college does not automatically prepare you for everything that the future will throw at you.
Nevertheless, if you study both the humanities and business, you will acquire an understanding and an insight into people that many others do not have. With the wide breadth of skills from these two areas of study, you will have the preparation that can lead your organization into the future.
Start an arts and humanities degree program at American Public University.
About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.
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