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MBA versus MA in Leadership

Thirty years ago this month, I started graduate school.  At the time I was unsure about my future and was looking to make myself more employable.  I hoped I would find my calling in the process.  I enrolled in a program that Yale invented–a Master’s in Public and Private Management (MPPM)–one that was essentially an MBA, designed “to train managers who could be effective in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors, and who would have the skills, understanding, and perspective to move among those sectors effectively.”  A few years later they changed the degree into an MBA, and retroactively offered graduates the chance to change our degrees as well.  Even Yale couldn’t compete with the success of the MBA degree.  


History of the MBA:  Graduate business education has been around since 1900 (Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth), and Harvard coined the name MBA in 1908.  In the U.S. today, more than 100,000 MBA’s are granted each year, and the popularity shows no sign of waning.  In 1986 it felt like a safe move for me in an uncertain time; MBA’s are still considered a good investment compared to other graduate degrees.  In 1986 there was no such thing as an MA in Leadership for me to even consider as an option.  The Saint Mary’s College MA in Leadership was one of the first stand-alone leadership programs in the country, and it wasn’t started until 2001. 

MBA’s Evolve:  Fifteen years later (2003), after varied experiences working in the corporate, nonprofit and public sectors, I found myself back in business education, as the founding program director of the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA in Sustainable Management.  We sought to bring social and environmental responsibility to business education, not by adding a few courses to the traditional MBA curriculum, but by integrating the values of social justice and environmental sustainability into the design of each course.  In 2015, in an article examining which MBA programs help get people where they want to go in their careers, Duff McDonald of the New York Times wrote, “If you want to change the world, go to Presidio Graduate School.”  Presidio and other innovative MBA programs have helped reshape the landscape of business education.  At Saint Mary’s, we are proud of the tagline of our MBA programs, “Think Globally, Lead Responsibly.”  Though I didn’t know it at the time, my calling was coming slowly into focus:  “How do we bring values, responsibility and effectiveness to leadership development?”

Story of Office Depot:  In preparing to launch a new kind of MBA program at Presidio, I attended a conference in the spring of 2002 called Business Environment Learning and Leadership (BELL).  The keynote presentation was by Bruce Nelson, CEO of Office Depot.  In his remarks, Nelson explained how the company was about to create a new position–Director of Social Responsibility–to try and better cope with things like environmental protests, more responsible sourcing, etc.  As the world’s largest seller of paper products, Office Depot was a convenient target for those dedicated to saving the old growth forests.  We had the opportunity to ask questions of Nelson, and mine was the following:

We are a room of business educators, developing people that you hire.  You are our customer.  How are we doing?  What do you need from us?

He smiled and affirmed the need for people who know accounting, finance and marketing, and acknowledged that MBA’s were good at bringing those skills.  He then paused and looked a little sheepish, before continuing:

What we really need is people with emotional intelligence, not people who are good at getting an A.  We operate in 40 countries and deal with enormous complexity; teamwork and collaboration are essential.  I don’t know what is happening, but the people we are hiring are needing more of that kind of social intelligence, and we are having to figure out how to train them on the job.  They don’t seem to be developing enough social and emotional intelligence in business school.

His words resonated deeply for me.  In my own experience, the courses from my business education that were still relevant to my life years later were the courses that taught me about leadership, group dynamics and interpersonal skills–in short, social and emotional intelligence.  No matter what industry one hails from, if a person is going up the career ladder, their job will increasingly be about working with and influencing other people.  For me, leadership and interpersonal skills are practices we evolve along our life journeys, not destinations that can be checked off the to-do list.  Bruce Nelson was reminding us of the old adage, “develop the soft skills for the hard results.”  As Garth Saloner, Dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (2006 – 2016) put it:

The harder skills of finance and supply chain management and accounting and so on—those have become more standardized in management education, have become kind of a hygiene factor everybody ought to know.  Those skill sets are pretty widely available; to be perfectly honest, there’s not a ton of differentiation in those across a number of providers.  But the soft-skill sets, the real leadership, the ability to work with others and through others to execute—that is still in very scarce supply.

Business educators were increasingly paying attention to what Nelson and Saloner were highlighting.  Saloner went on to say:

There are a set of leadership skills that can be taught.  They have to be taught experientially; this is not something you can lecture about.  You have to put people in small groups, give them leadership tasks, and have them work them through.

Saloner’s words spoke directly to my experience as well.  Leadership is one degree that we cannot learn in isolation; we must practice together.  We had built the inaugural Presidio curriculum based on four basic curriculum strands:  money, markets, sustainability and people.  The people strand was the one charged with developing the kind of leadership skills that Nelson and Saloner described.  After running the Presidio program for a year, I understood more about why it was tough to go more deeply into leadership development–there simply wasn’t enough time to cover everything needed for success and responsibility in today’s business world.  

Invitation to Saint Mary’s:  A few years later, Ken Otter invited me to teach a course with him in the MA in Leadership program.  From the start, it was a revelation for me to see the list of courses:

  • The Practice of Building Learning Communities
  • Values, Ethics and Decision Making
  • Leadership Theory
  • Global Context for 21st Century Leadership
  • Leadership in Action
  • Sustainable Organizational Change
  • Building Cross-Cultural Capacity
  • Policy, Leadership and Systemic Change
  • The Future of Leadership
  • Personal and Organizational Learning
  • Final Leadership Project

These were the same topics that I had been interested in all my life, I just never realized they could be combined under the umbrella of leadership.  When I began teaching at Saint Mary’s, the transformative and collaborative learning that Nelson and Saloner described was at the center of the whole curriculum.   

Complementary Education:  In an MBA program, leadership was understandably one strand among many topics.  Finance, accounting and marketing are big important subjects that require big attention.  If people had the time and money, I would recommend they get an MBA and an MA in Leadership, as complementary degrees.  In fact, we have had a number of MBA’s come back to school to get an MA in Leadership, precisely because they knew how crucial leadership skills are to their future, and how little time they were able to devote to leadership within their MBA curriculums.

Which Degree is Right For You?  When people talk to me about the differences between and MBA and the MA in Leadership, I first tell them to look closely at the courses they will be taking, as these courses are where they will spend their time and energy.  If someone wants to learn the language of business, and become facile in subjects like accounting, finance, and marketing, then an MBA is a great way to go.  Similarly, if you want a calling card for your resume that people will understand immediately, you can’t beat the MBA, with a century of brand recognition behind it.  


If, on the other hand, your passion is about working with people and finding ways to address the huge challenges our culture and world are facing, then committing yourself to the practice of leadership may be a worthy direction and focus for you.  As Saint Mary’s faculty Ken Otter describes:

There are many people who find it is leadership that is needed in their enterprises.  They realize they do not need an MBA, for they can access business acumen from experience, other team members or short courses.  The complexity and collaboration of leadership education lends itself to an immersive graduate learning experience.

Who Shows Up:  In the decade I have been exploring leadership education at Saint Mary’s, I have found that there is something special about the people who are drawn to the concept of leadership and take the risk to study a relatively new discipline that can require some explanation for those reviewing your resume.  Three common themes I have seen in the folks who show up for an MA in Leadership:

  1. Passion for Change:  Whether they are in their twenties or in their seventies, or from the public, private or nonprofit sectors, they have a shared passion for making a difference in the world.
  2. Feeling the Pain and Limitations of Current Organizational Culture:  Our learners come to the MA in Leadership because they know there has to be a better way for human beings “to work with others and through others to” innovate, collaborate and be successful.  They have felt the challenges of the public, private and nonprofit sectors in the 21st Century and want more tools for navigating and transforming those organizational cultures.
  3. Self as Instrument of Leadership:  Finally, people seeking a degree in leadership seem to know that they have more gifts to share with the world.  They are dedicated to learning more about how they can bring their best to their families, organizations and communities.  It is with this last theme that I have better identified my own calling, which is to try and be of service to others in finding their calling.

Dr. Cheryl Getz, Department Chair for Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego, opened her external review of our program with the following observation:

There is a great need for professional leadership education that responds to the complex challenges of the 21st century, and an increasing number of graduate Leadership Programs around the country have attempted to meet this need.  The MA Leadership program at SMC is distinctive in its curriculum, approach and delivery, providing a unique and tailored learning experience for working adults that would be difficult to find in any single MA program in the U.S.

How do you see the distinctions of these different degree programs?  In the words of poet Mary Oliver, what skills do you need to make the most of “your one wild and precious life?”  Please share your experience with us!

Image Credits: poetsandquants, Universiteifm, thindifference

About Doug Paxton, Ph.D.

Doug Paxton, Ph.D.
Doug Paxton is a learner, educator, writer, and artist who is passionate about what humanity has to learn from reconnecting to our values and the natural world. Doug is Co-Director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary’s College and faculty in the MA in Leadership program, currently focusing his teaching in the area of Values in Action, Leadership and Sustainable Organizational Change.

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  • Sarah Freedman

    Doug, thank you for sharing your journey.

    As a graduate of the St. Mary’s program, I can verify that this program is exactly what you describe and worth every penny. I was equally excited when I saw the course list and my excitement lasted throughout the nearly 2-year program. In fact, I felt so at home in the world of learning St. Mary’s leadership faculty have created that I have returned to learn from Ken about coaching. I have jokingly told friends that I will continue collecting leadership certificates, not because I want to pad my resume, but because I have found the programs to be so engaging and life-sustaining.

    Thank you for eloquently outlining the benefits of the leadership program. It has been a privilege to work with you and I look forward to the next time our paths cross!