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New Leadership Center tackles tough questions

What is leadership? Can it be taught? How do you differentiate leadership from character? Is leadership a choice? These are just a few questions that emerged from an all-day session April 16 with industry and government leaders and MIT faculty to mark the launch of the MIT Leadership Center.

Directed by Deborah Ancona, the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at MIT's Sloan School of Management, the MIT Leadership Center seeks to achieve three key goals:

  • To focus dialogue on questions of leadership, such as how to develop leaders and how to create change.
  • To create innovative educational programs to develop the next generation of leaders.
  • To stimulate action by working with global leaders and organizational partners to tackle significant leadership challenges in the world and create change.

"MIT has an extraordinary history of educating leaders in many fields, and the Sloan School has a tradition of research and education in leadership that dates back to the 1950s," said Professor Richard Schmalensee, dean of the Sloan School. "The center will focus our understanding of what makes leaders effective and will enable us to transmit that understanding to our students and partners."

The history of cross-disciplinary work at MIT makes the Institute a unique place for this work, said Warren Bennis, a Sloan alumnus and former faculty member who is working with Ancona to establish the Leadership Center.

"In the world we're into now, a world that's going to be dominated institutionally by science and engineering, there's no more important thing to do than develop the leaders who are going to be entering those fields," Bennis said.

Ancona has directed the Leadership Program at Sloan and has been instrumental in developing leadership components of the school's MBA curriculum. For example, students participate in Bosnian peacekeeping simulations, hold "up close and personal" sessions with executives, and seek to improve leadership practices in real organizations. Others explore leadership by staging a production of "Henry V," and still others brainstorm with leaders on how to improve corporate social responsibility.

Working with Ancona to develop the Leadership Center are Sloan professors Thomas Malone, Wanda Orlikowski and Peter Senge. Mary Schaefer will serve as executive director of the center.

The faculty team has created a model that moves leadership away from command-and-control hierarchies and toward greater distribution and collaboration throughout an organization -- and has been conducting innovative leadership development programs in corporations like Merrill Lynch and British Petroleum.

The center is also about action, Ancona said. "For us at MIT, leadership is about changing and shaping what's going on around us," she says. "We want to have a center where academic, business, government and nonprofit leaders can work together to tackle some of the complex issues in the world today."

Ancona and her team are creating a Leadership Advisory Council of academic, government and industry leaders. Council members expressed interest in sharing their experience both inside and outside MIT classrooms. "Use us," they said. "Let us be authors, not just critics."

Notable council members include Daniel Vasella, chairman and CEO of Novartis AG; Ellen Roy Herzfelder, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs; Bob Galvin, retired CEO of Motorola; and Sheila Widnall, Institute Professor at MIT and former Secretary of the Air Force.

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