Boss Lady

Why business education needs to change: the 5 problems


In December 2020, Elon Musk made waves at the Wall Street Journal CEO summit. Decrying the ‘MBA-ization’ of executives, Elon argued that today’s top leaders spend too much time in front of spreadsheets and in meetings, and not enough time thinking creatively and making things happen. This is a clue to why business education needs to change.

Musk’s comments echo a growing scepticism with traditional business education. Studying management finance in the weekend no longer makes sense in a fast-moving global environment. In fact, very little does. The pandemic has triggered a large scale re-evaluation of the assumptions underpinning our careers and organisations. Some businesses floundered, while others flourished, casting a light on a leadership deficit that has been gaining pace for years: the loss of the strategic leader.

Our strategic capacity is the single-most important determinant of personal and organisational success. We’re quick to criticise in hindsight – why didn’t Kodak see the digital camera coming? How could Blockbuster underestimate Netflix? – yet we continue to invest in skills that hold us back, neglecting the things that make a real difference.

MBA courses might be useful to optimise a supply chain or interpret a profit and loss statement, but those skills don’t cut it when our business model becomes irrelevant overnight. Unless we equip our leaders with strategic skills, our education loses relevance as the world continues to shift.

Not all MBA programmes are created equally, of course. Many have seen the snow melting at the edges, and started adapting their content accordingly. But bound by the bureaucracy and limitations of the tertiary education sector, the format of these programmes remains astonishingly unchanged. Most universities are large, unwieldy beasts – and change doesn’t happen quickly.

All that bureaucracy comes at a cost, too – which the student foots. The average MBA student forks out close to $50,000 by the time they’ve finished their qualification, without taking into account costs of travel, opportunity cost at work and home, and the toll on their mental and physical health.

5 problems with traditional business education

Problem 1: Lecture and Listen

The first culprit is a reliance on the ‘lecture and listen’ form of learning. Students yawn through lengthy Powerpoint presentations and memorize complex jargon and theory, with little application to their real lives.

One solution to combat traditional teaching drawbacks is by recording a lecture, allowing students to revisit material at their own pace. This fosters deeper understanding, empowering them to learn more effectively.

Problem 2: Burnout

Not only that, their real lives suffer. Most MBA students work full-time in jobs or businesses, and juggle family and community responsibilities. Despite this, universities ask them to sacrifice upwards of 20 hours each week to complete their degree. Stress, illness and burnout are common, and the self-professed ‘career shortcut’ starts to feel a lot less short by year two.

Problem 3: Lag time

What we don’t use, we lose. Many MBA programmes schedule a consulting or investigative project as their final assignment – which for some students, can be two or four years in. All the things they learn along the way are long forgotten, making knowledge difficult to apply to their life and work.

Problem 4: Loss of the arts

Humanities have been slashed at a time we need them more than ever. STEM and Commerce are the new darlings of the tertiary landscape, leaving little room for the critical thinking we need from our leaders. With management science replacing social science, the nuanced skills we need more than ever – joining the dots, understanding context and working out what makes people tick – have gone by the wayside.

Problem 5: Irrelevance

Twenty years ago, those three letters might have been a ticket to success. But in a quickly changing market crying out for adaptive leadership, digital mastery and the ability to “pivot” (2020’s most over-used word) at pace, ambitious leaders are pausing to ask whether it’s really worth it – and what the alternatives might be instead.

It’s time for lessons that count

In the knowledge economy, we’ve got access to all the information and instruction in the world, at the touch of a button. If you need finance knowledge, watch a video and get your head around it in 15 minutes. If you need marketing expertise, Google for a freelancer and book the job in online.

But if you need to understand how best to adapt to your environment, how to make quality decisions that capture the big picture, how to drive focus and how to take people along on the journey… well, that one’s on you. And it won’t be a university MBA that gets you there.

About Alicia McKay'

Alicia McKay, author of ‘You Don’t Need An MBA: Leadership Lessons that Cut Through the Crap’ ($34.95), is a strategic leadership expert and founder of the naMBA programme – a game-changing alternative to traditional leadership education. Alicia works with leaders and teams to spark strategic shifts in the way they think, work and lead. For more information about the naMBA programme, check out

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