The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Leading a Business School: Changing roles and challenges

leading a business school - sky picture of geese flying in V shape
Julie Davies, Howard Thomas, Eric Cornuel, and Rolf D. Cremer highlight key insights on leading a business school in different national, cultural, and institutional contexts and how deans’ roles and responsibilities have changed over time.

What do we now expect from business school deans? For example, how do business school leaders reconcile differences between their expectations and the lived reality of the job in various settings and situations? And how has the business school deanship evolved historically? In our book Leading a Business School (2023), we seek to research, demystify and clarify deans’ changing roles and experiences over time.

These insights are based on our extensive knowledge, and design of, deans’ development programmes, and through candid interviews with deans and content analysis of job profiles and media reports. We focus on changing business models and deanship transitions since EFMD’s inception 50 years ago. An examination of critical incidents in the dean’s role reveals important lessons for management educators and teams who are responsible for developing current and future organisational leaders, educational and other organisations. Faced with a ‘permacrisis’, i.e., ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’, we draw attention to key challenges for past, incumbent, and aspiring business school leaders. At the end of our book, we discuss future prospects for leading business schools meaningfully in the context of recent challenges such as climate emergency, the pandemic (we facilitated an EFMD webinar during lockdown on business school leadership – Davies, Ferlie, McLaughlin and Thomas, 2021), the cost-of-living, energy, sustainability and geopolitical crises.

We look forward optimistically to more collaborative, agile, affordable, accessible, and responsible management education. It is imperative that deans are not only responsive but proactive in addressing socio-technical challenges and designing learning communities and ecosystems to deal with society’s complex ‘wicked problems’ in an increasingly fragmented world.

The evolution of management education during EFMD’s first half century

EFMD was established in 1972 to bridge management practice and management learning. It enables deans to exchange ideas and experiences and represents management development widely. Deans have benefited from growing professionalisation and extensive networking through EFMD accreditations, dedicated conferences, and other professional development activities. Over the five decades since EFMD was established, business school leaders have increasingly grappled with challenges about the legitimacy, relevance, and societal impact of business and management schools. Competitive pressures and complexity in the deanship have intensified. We argue in our book, however, that three ‘blind spots’ remain for business school leaders: defining impact, dealing with Leading a Business School book coverinertia, and implementing transformational models.

Historically, university-based business school deans have struggled with exercising autonomy and demonstrating sufficient courage to facilitate disruptive innovation with new models such as public value and liberal management education. Moreover, we suggest that a deficit of strategic leadership, increasingly short tenures and overloaded deans have resulted in caution and conservatism, with deans concentrating narrowly on improving the status quo.

EFMD’s 40th anniversary annual report in 2012 stressed the importance of extensive international networks, peer review accreditation visits, and partnerships. The global business education jams designed in collaboration with Questrom School of Business, Boston University, in 2014/15, provided invaluable reflections on variations on the dominant North American model of management education. Indeed, we identified clusters of different types of business schools where deans operate, such as in North America, the UK and continental Europe, Nordic models, South-East Asian groupings, Indian, and South American clusters. The jams revealed consensus about the need for business schools to develop socially responsible leaders capable of balancing partnerships with government, business, and society in wider ecosystems of collaborative stakeholders with a humanistic ethos.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated much needed changes in business school models, for example, in edtech and technology-enabled learning. However, the public health crisis also emphasised the inadequacy of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to management education and journal publishing. The pandemic resulted in an intense awareness of growing socio-economic inequalities and concerns about mental health and well-being. Therefore, business schools must address pressing issues linked to rapid technological innovations, inclusive growth and governance. There are exciting opportunities to re-energise and re-design established models, cultures and structures in the existing business school sector. These will require ongoing changes in learning and teaching and research strategies, and novel perspectives on globalisation, faculty development and entrepreneurship. Deans must adapt their strategies and competitive positioning and objectives using new norms and performance metrics to overcome complacency and satisfy a much broader, ongoing impact agenda.

Just what are deans supposed to do?

A reading of some deans’ job descriptions might suggest that they are somehow superhuman. In Leading a Business School, we extend our understanding of what deans actually do since our findings over a decade ago in Global Focus (Davies and Thomas, 2010) on UK business school deans when we argued that business schools need well-supported and capable business school leaders. Our book includes a content analysis of current vision, mission and values statements, job descriptions and person specifications for deanships, as well as historical and media accounts of deans’ performance. Curiously, new broader roles of faculty/executive deans suggest that responsibilities have been augmented. Yet increasing culture wars, compliance with greater centralisation and IT platforms, as well as business school sector norms can, in practice, severely constrain and hinder the freedom of executive deans to implement change.

As we review current practices, on the one hand, we are inspired by lofty business school mission statements about excellence, integrity, respect, diversity, community, and ethics. Historical accounts of pioneering deans who championed ‘practical philanthropy’, civic engagement, interdisciplinarity, public policy initiatives, and entrepreneurship, as well as recent developments such as the creation of Chief Impact Officer and Chief Diversity/Inclusion Officer roles, also offer inspiring examples. We provide examples of exceptionally long-serving deans such as Don Jacobs, over three decades at Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. Greater diversity over time in terms of who occupies the business school deanship has been encouraging. However, complex demands at multiple levels on the business school dean mean that leadership teams and distributed leadership have become strategic imperatives. Interactions between business school leaders, their colleagues, governing boards, and multiple stakeholders highlight the important relational aspects of a successful business school deanship.

A reading of some deans’ job descriptions might suggest that they are somehow superhuman.

On the other hand, an increasing concern for budgets, resources, expenditure, and delivery in job profiles indicates that the business school deanship has shifted from a focus primarily on academic quality and collegiality to executive concerns about revenue growth, performance, and control-oriented managerialism. We list various reasons for deans being forced to step down earlier than they had expected. For example, scandals (which Poets&Quants ranks each December) like the case of a dean falsifying data for MBA rankings, lower than anticipated financial surpluses, and accusations of bullying and sexual harassment.

Clearly, most deans enter the role seeking to add value and to make a difference. They need to do this with sensitivity to national, cultural, and institutional contingencies in different types of business schools while understanding trends such as the future of work. Remote and hybrid working since the pandemic and instability in society mean that it is very challenging for deans to build strong research and learning communities. In a context of culture wars and de-globalisation, continuous meaningful dialogue is important for generating mutual understanding between business school deans and their constituencies. Although the business school deanship can be exhausting and overwhelming, new crises represent new opportunities for re-imagining and re-inventing the business school deanship.

Critical incidents

The middle chapter of our book focuses on significant events which test a dean’s identity, sense of composure, and ability to frame strategies to address such issues as the UN’s sustainable development, and prominent ESG governance goals. Critical incidents can seriously distract deans from their core mission and even derail their careers. Yet they are inevitable. So, beyond the glossy job profiles created by executive search firms, we present defining moments, mundane and momentous, that can upend best laid plans.

We trace incidents in which deans at Warwick Business School and its forerunner have negotiated, such as rapid growth, budget devolution, and intensified competition. Exogenous crises include recessions, the war in Ukraine, terrorist attacks, national disasters, and changes in government policies. Internally, deans deal with critical incidents such as funding and recruitment crises; faculty incivility and misconduct; complaints about discrimination, bullying and facilities; votes of no confidence; restructuring and mergers; personal tragedies; negative publicity; declining media and league table rankings; new bosses who want to replace them; and personal burnout.

Our advice to deans who find themselves faced with seemingly intractable situations includes ensuring due diligence and impartiality, evidence-based and deliberative decision-making, behaving as role models in terms of emphasising a clear moral and ethical compass and acting with integrity. Individuals we interviewed about handling critical incidents talked about not jumping to conclusions, learning from failure, taking time to reflect, being visible and ensuring clear communications while not scapegoating individuals. Deans stressed lessons learned about the need to ensure that organisational systems are fit for purpose and that line managers are visible and responsible.

Deans taking their own medicine in leader(ship)/organisational development

Job descriptions indicate what deans are expected to do and critical incidents illustrate negative and positive learning opportunities. Like judges who have not written their own wills and barbers with poor haircuts, business school deans may neglect their own personal development. We know that deans are responsible for setting strategic direction and acting as a chief academic officer and chief marketing officer. They lead in promoting cross-university initiatives, enhancing a business school’s reputation, accreditations, rankings, recruitment, finances, and critical resources. They aim to inspire others, line manage professors, chair committees, communicate regularly, comply with regulations, work effectively with an advisory board and external stakeholders and so on. Quite how they learn to do this well might feel like learning to ride a bike as an adult in full public view.

Jim March, the outstanding organisational scholar, observed that leadership entails ‘plumbing and poetry’ – dealing with practicalities and joy. We might imagine that deans are passionate about learning and life-long learners themselves and who are well equipped to learn on the job or can co-opt colleagues who are management experts to run the business school itself. Of course, this is not the case as deans themselves are often too busy to reflect and participate in formal development activities. Despite expectations of institutional citizenship, business school deans may focus on quality management education as a subject rather than see themselves as institutional leaders, given the existence of increasing managerialism and centralised control in the higher education environment.

Leadership styles tracked over 15 yearsThe track record over 15 years from 1980 of John H. McArthur, Dean of Harvard Business School, shows his leadership style and empathy, and what he learned to achieve with others over the course of his deanship. Transitions over a dean’s tenure require an individual to learn different tasks and approaches which are shaped by their career intentions. In Leading a Business School, we suggest elements of an ideal formal development programme for deans. This emphasises a cohort programme with an experienced facilitator who creates a safe and purposeful space to share challenges, knowledge, and lasting peer-to-peer learning. Such programmes help to socialise a new dean into the business school community and develop their capabilities, confidence, and connections over several meetings. Preparatory activities and follow-up activities to ensure action-learning build a sense of camaraderie, which can be invaluable particularly for deans who may feel lonely and overwhelmed. After all, as Sandra Dawson, formerly Director of Cambridge Judge Business School, observed, ‘everyone needs a club of like-minded people’. Generativity also matters, the ability to guide future generations of leaders, as well as the ability to ask for help. Sumantra Ghoshal’s attention to understanding ‘the smell of the place’ (organisational culture), Bedeian’s advice on dealing with the ‘dean’s disease’ (group think), and Waller’s advice on expressing gratitude provide useful reference points for individuals to become better deans. We also cite research on deans in South Africa and Latin America, commentary from Carl Rhodes in Australia about the risks of woke business schools and perspectives from China on government relations. In addition, scholars of leader and leadership development, advocates of experiential learning, and academic debates about non-traditional academic leaders offer valuable insights to learn about business school leadership.

Deans must learn to understand their own learning styles and needs, others’ expectations and perceptions, and how to build teams and develop meaningful relationships with faculty, staff, student, business unit and organisational development. They must be more than chief compliance officers, they must learn political, public and media relations and diplomacy skills and to complement their weaknesses with capable team members. At the same time, deans must be mindful of their own career trajectories, goals and exit plans. The appointment of a new head of a university can abruptly change a dean’s remit and prospects.

Retrospective and forward-thinking conclusions

Undoubtedly, it is a privilege to lead a business school and the growth in management education has been phenomenal. Recognising the importance of the three Cs in our book – country, culture and institutional contexts is a central argument. It enriches our understanding of what the business school deanship entails historically and over an individual’s tenure. One-time and serial deans shared interesting reflections about various experts, mentors and coaches, and formal and informal learning experiences which shaped their journeys in leading business schools.

But there is still much for business school leaders to do. Issues of affordability of tuition fees and student accessibility persist. There is considerable scope for interdisciplinary collaborations among business schools in broader ecosystems, between business schools and their host university departments, between academic faculty and professional services staff and students, and other sectors and citizens to achieve positive societal impact.

Membership associations such as EFMD, AACSB, GBSN (Global Business School Network), PRME (Principles for Responsible Management Education) and the RRBM (Responsible Research in Business and Management) community, national and regional business school associations, offer professional networking opportunities. Transnational, cross-sector, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary networks are also useful sources for current and incoming deans. As business education is unbundled, for instance, by alternative reality and gamification (Wharton), Salesforce Education Data Architecture (Saïd Business School Oxford), new models like the Quantic MBA, and 2U partnering with UK business schools (LSE, UCL) for online programmes, as well as similar US online programmes (Questrom, Boston (edX), and Illinois (Coursera)), business school leaders are experiencing exciting times.

Finally, we would like to point out that Leading a Business School is available free in Open Access form on We welcome feedback on our book with examples from different countries, cultures, and contexts of innovative, impactful, and inclusive business school leadership as we look towards EFMD’s next half-century.



Davies, J., E. Ferlie, H. McLaughlin and H. Thomas (2021) Examining business school leadership. Global Focus, 1(15), 66–72

Davies, J. and H. Thomas (2010) What do deans do? Global Focus, 4(1), 44–47

Davies, J., H. Thomas, E. Cornuel and R.D. Cremer (2023) Leading a Business School. Abingdon: Routledge

EFMD (2012) Annual report. Brussels: EFMD. Available at: 

Professor Julie Davies is Director of the MBA Health programme at University College London.

Howard Thomas is Senior Advisor, EFMD Global; Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Strategic Management & Management Education, Singapore Management University (SMU). He has had Deanships / Senior Administrative positions at London Business School, AGSM, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Warwick Business School, and Singapore Management University. He is also the recipient of several honorary degrees.

Eric Cornuel is President of EFMD.

Professor Rolf D. Cremer is Chair of EFMD’s flagship Strategic Leadership Programme for Deans. He is also former dean of the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and immediate past President and Chief Executive Officer of EBS University of Business and Law, Wiesbaden, Germany.

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