How MBAs Can Lead The Life They Want

P&Q: What advice would you give to MBAs who are looking to make a big splash when they start their first jobs after graduation?

Friedman: First, the prior question, of course, is to choose a company that’s aligned with your values and what you care about. Before you get there, be smart about the fit between you and the community or social environment that you’re about to become a part of, because you’re going to become like those people in order to survive. And that means adjusting to the culture of that organization. That is the most prudent question in my mind.

And that requires you to think about your values in life and your vision, to clarify what matters most to you. Start with that. Once you are there, to make a splash, you ought to do as much as you can that fits with what you’re most passionate about in the world. You want to try as much as possible to be as engaged at work with things that bring you closer to what you care about, that brings your best energy and what you’re most skillful at, that calls on all of your talents and resources, and where you’re most productive. That way, you’ll probably be having the most fun. And people want to be around other people who are engaged, passionate, and having fun.

If you act like the guy standing next to you, that’s only going to work for a little while. Ultimately, from what I’ve learned from 30 years of teaching and practice, is what’s gratifying is finding a path that’s well-suited to what you care about in life. And that requires a lot of difficult introspection and questions. You’re constantly looking inside (and out), figuring out, ‘How can I spend my time doing something that I care about?’

P&Q: What was the biggest surprise you had from the research and interviews you did for this book?

Friedman: Well, I didn’t go in thinking about what I ended up writing about. And it’s this idea: a paradox of finding freedom through not exactly forgetting about yourself, but transcending yourself, to be thinking beyond your own interests to seeing how you can create value for the people around you that you care about.

That was the big idea. That’s why I changed the working title. It seemed to make a lot more sense, especially since I came to the conclusion that to lead the life you want, you’ve got to be serving other people. That really rang true. Nobody wants to support you if all you want to do is make more money, get a bigger house, or have nicer clothes. What people care about is what are you doing to help them and the people that they care about. If you want to build a reputation with someone – to be a trustworthy person who is worthy of support – [you must be] doing everything you can all the time to demonstrate what you’re trying to do is to bring value, not being self-aggrandizing.

It’s an obvious lesson and most of the world’s religions teach it. The reason it’s true is because it’s so easy to forget. It shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was something I had to discover through this research.

P&Q: You mention that the “only way to improve your capacity to lead is to practice.” What should MBAs do to better practice leadership?

Friedman: [My book] is built to do just that. In all seriousness, the purpose of this book is to give people the framework for thinking about leadership skills. That’s based on lots of research and best practices that show that this is what makes people successful.

The big idea is that most people who are serious – like MBAs – don’t realize that you have to practice leadership in order to be good at it. It used to be thought that you were either born with [leadership] or not. Now we know – and it’s widely accepted – that you have to learn leadership. It can’t be taught. But it can definitely be learned. In fact, it has to be learned. And you’re the person who has to learn it.

Here’s an analogy: You mentioned that you used to be an athlete earlier. How much of your time as an athlete was spent in preparation versus performing? What was the ratio? [P&Q: 90/10]. Exactly. If you ask that same question (as I do) to business leaders . . . it’s the reverse of that. People don’t think they have to practice. It’s just like a sport or a performing art. If you don’t get feedback, try new things constantly, exercise your muscles deliberately, or keep your instrument in tune or sharp . . . it’s just not going to happen.

And that’s one of the most important ideas in this book: You can develop these skills – and you must develop these skills if you’re going to be good.

P&Q: Any other messages that you’d like to share with our readers?

Friedman: What I’m most excited about in this book is that it makes accessible to anyone a set of exercises that is based on the best research and practices to give them the skills to become better as leaders. It gives them tools to make a difference in the world. As I look at the world today, there is a crying need for greater leadership no matter what your role in society.

I don’t think of leadership as having hierarchical authority to mobilize people. You can lead without anyone reporting to you in an organization. You can [lead] anywhere. So what I am excited about is after hearing from readers is that these are tools that people can use to get them further to becoming the leaders they want to become. And that’s something I’m super enthused about and very gratified by.

So I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to put these ideas out there and for them to be used in a way that people find practical and helpful. I’m trying to make the world a little safer and a little better in my work.

My belief is that business schools [must encourage in] students the idea of being leaders in all the different parts of their lives, that [students must] make decisions . . . in ways that make things better for all of us. That’s why the concept of four-way wins is so important. You must think about the ripple effects of your actions not just only yourself, but your family and business and also the rest of the world. The world is broken. We need to heal it.

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