MBA; a Master of Bugger All…

…when people ask me if getting an MBA is worth the effort, I guess the correct answer to give would be to ask what they expect it to deliver for them in return; is it wealth, knowledge, understanding, respect and the acknowledgement of their peers, or something else? An MBA might well help you achieve such things, but it’s certainly not a leadership panacea, it’s not the expensive entry into a world of commercial know-how, strategic insight and certainty that it’s sometimes offered as. For me, a good MBA is just a really useful exercise in the creation of uncertainty. Not surprisingly, that isn’t the answer most people are looking for, it’s not the sales pitch most MBA providers would use and I’m sure it’s not the answer most people who’ve spent a fortune on getting an MBA are comfortable giving; lets face it, that would be a difficult conversation to have with a corporate sponsor, “so we’ve just spent twenty thousand on you out the training budget, what did you learn”…”well, I found out that most of the assumptions and premises we’ve been working on for the last decade have no basis of evidence to support them, the planning process we’ve been using is actually counter-productive, the role of budgeting is spurious at best, oh, and also, we shouldn’t underestimate the role of good fortune, the apathy in our marketplace and the inadequacies of our competitors in letting us get this far without hitting the rocks”…few training managers or sponsoring executives would be happy with that response. And therein lies the problem.


We’ve known for an age that people like to follow people of strength and certainty, the more certain people are the stronger they can seem, despite this fact having caused so much trouble over the course of history. Of course the trouble is amplified when those advocating their chosen path of certainty have the fertile ground of ignorance on which to sprinkle their views. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and latterly George Bush were men of certainty; their certainty of the problem (Jews, Capitalist Enemies of the State, Intelligentsia Urban Dwellers or a Terrorist under every bed) and their certainty of the solution was their strength; no room for liberal indecision (or thought as some of us like to call it) with these guys. H L Mencken famously observed that for every complex problem there was a clear and simple solution that was probably wrong. But despite this observation and all the accompanying evidence to support it, the advocates of unproven theories in every field of life especially business and politics, continue to pedal their certainties with impunity and zeal. Have you noticed that when things don’t go to plan, as sometimes happens, people of certainty don’t admit they were wrong, they simply say we didn’t implement their solution correctly; try harder next time! The picture on the right is an optical illusion entitled “wife and mother in law”…what you see is perception; certainty is a fallacy.

I had a good friend, he was my best man when I got married nearly thirty years ago; where did that go? He quit his job to study English at Durham University and become a teacher. He rang me excitedly the same evening he’d been shown around the University Library, he said, “You should see this place, I never knew how ignorant I was until I came here”. His comment wasn’t defeatist or negative, it was a joyful observation; the scales of ignorance and the certainty that so often accompanies it were falling from his eyes and he was delighting in this revelation. He could see a way forward because he had a clear starting point, he knew what he wasn’t and now he knew what was possible. John never looked back and right up until he died of cancer ten years ago he continued to grasp opportunities to acquire and share new knowledge and insights with his students…he remained a student himself.

So is an MBA worth it; yes I think it is. It’s not that having one will give you all the answers (that’s something I’m sure of), it will simply help you understand how little you know and that there are no simple answers. Losing this illusion could make you wiser than finding a truth (Ludwig Borne)


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