Leadership Update got off to a strong start this morning with a seminar on the importance and impact of liberal arts in education in general and at SSE in particular.
In the panel debate, held at Sveavägen 63, four professionals provided their perspectives: Lars Strannegård, president of SSE and Professor in Leadership; Britta Burreau, CEO of Nordea Liv & Försäkring; Catharina Mannerfelt, Recruiting Consultant at Alumni Group; and Ingalill Holmberg, Professor of Management and Director of CASL. The audience included a mix of SSE alumni, managers and leaders from the IFL network, SSE students, and SSE researchers.
After short introductions from the panelists, a lively discussion ensued, stoked by challenging comments and questions from the audience. The discussion ranged from the current Swedish school system and its cutbacks on liberal arts, to Swedish leaders’ competitive edge and lack of influence in an international context, extending to the actual benefits of the liberal arts in everyday life.
Lars Strannegård stressed the importance of students understanding the context in which they are working. He told the joke about two fish having a conversation in the middle of the ocean. “How are you?” “I’m fine.” “How do you find the water today?” “What water?” Strannegård’s main argument was that the liberal arts are necessary to complement the technical skills of today’s specialized students of economics and management, that is, future business leaders. The liberal arts not only offer another way of structuring knowledge but also provide another way of understanding everyday work in contemporary organizations. “If we look only to evidence-based leadership, we get the one-way or the no-way,” Strannegård says.
Britta Burreau emphasized taking responsibility for leading oneself. She made a convincing case by describing how she uses a liberal arts perspective and its tools in her own leadership. For example, she has a study group, or ”book circle,” in her management group that reads selected books and then discusses them over lunch before executive management group meetings. It’s a great way to gain new perspectives on leadership or managerial dilemmas and also helps the participants get to know the people they are working with better. According to Burreau, it’s common for Swedes to introduce themselves using their title and profession. More exposure to the liberal arts might provide new and innovative angles, in interpersonal relationships as well as strategic challenges.
Catharina Mannerfelt followed up with a few of her experiences recruiting leaders and managers during the past 15 years. Mannerfelt pointed out that Swedish higher education focuses on technical skills more than, say, the British system does, where business leaders often have a broad liberal arts background. Although Swedish leaders might come across as less educated or cultivated, she said, employers appreciate their specialist training for the tasks they have to do.
A research perspective was added by Ingalill Holmberg. She pointed out that not only do leaders need additional knowledge and perspective to maneuver in today’s complex world, but the leadership training at SSE is too narrow. We tend to think about leadership as the heroic stories of successful leaders. But what we should do is look for a broader perspective on what leadership is and let each student find out what kind of leader she or he wants to be. Using Responsible Leadership as a basis, Holmberg stressed the importance of training students’ judgment and ability to handle dilemmas. Developing a personal philosophy of what is right and wrong demands a broad perspective, and that is aided by multiple areas of knowledge.
The researchers on the panel also objected to the simplified dichotomy of “manager” or “leader,” pointing out that 1) managerial work and leadership tasks are bundled together in most contexts and 2) being a leader and being a co-worker goes hand-in-hand in contemporary organizations. All of us, formal leader or not, walk in and out of these roles at different times.
Based on this lively and fruitful discussion, there seems to be consensus that leaders increasingly need to think outside the traditional management box and that liberal arts is one way to train students and future leaders to handle challenges.