Unexpected Leadership Lessons from the MIT EMBA Program

Adam Szaronos is the Head of Dry Eye Devices at Alcon, located in Fort Worth, TX and a graduate of the MIT EMBA class of 2018.

I came to this program to strengthen my quantitative and analytical decision-making skills as a business leader. These were the “hard sciences” I felt I needed to improve for general management, and the types of subjects usually associated with MIT. The MIT Executive MBA did not disappoint in these areas, but it turned out that the “soft skill” leadership lessons from the experience made an equally important impact.

MIT Sloan’s mission is “to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world,” and it may surprise you to know how rigorous the institution is when it comes to understanding and applying the science of leadership. As our Organizational Processes professor said, “we are ‘hard-nosed’ about the ‘soft sciences’ at MIT.”

Many of these types of lessons aren’t gained through course readings or lectures. They occur as small learning moments or personal or team challenges, and they are deliberately designed throughout the program’s architecture to help build your management capabilities, broaden your perspectives, and define your leadership signature.

Here are two examples:

Defeating “imposter syndrome”
There are a lot of very smart and accomplished people at MIT. When you begin, it’s common to have a sense of “imposter syndrome.” You may feel like you’re in a surrounding where you don’t belong. You may also feel this in your professional life, especially if you’re assigned to lead a new team or take on challenging stretch responsibilities.

Like many students, I experienced imposter syndrome when starting this program. One instance that stands out is when our Applied Economics professor was working through a problem to determine optimal production levels between two factories. This required students to mentally convert some quadratic derivatives. Having spent my career leveraging strengths more related to creativity, visioning, and communication, I hadn’t worked with quadratic derivatives since my undergrad calculus class. That was a long time ago. I felt completely out of my depth and humbled (a.k.a. asking a classmate for help and Googling “how to solve derivatives”).

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in this feeling. At a dinner early in the program, our initial learning groups (teams of 8) broke the ice by going through an exercise to discuss how we each desired to grow in this program. It was an extremely honest and unguarded discussion about individual weaknesses and development goals. I was surrounded by a mix of Type-A, accomplished global executives and thought-leaders across fields of medicine, technology, politics, and business, and the conversation focused not on egos, experiences, and answers, but on weaknesses, development goals, and questions. It was a refreshing experience.

Shared experiences like that dinner conversation helped me start to understand the secret to overcoming imposter syndrome – practicing authentic vulnerability. Having the confidence to openly discuss your weaknesses and development goals (in a safe environment) does two things: First, it actually dispels your own feelings of imposter syndrome because you are showing your authentic self, weaknesses and all, and this vulnerability helps transition you from a position of closed self-preservation to open self-development (which is the reason you’re attending this program to begin with!) Second, it also mitigates the imposter syndrome that you may unintentionally be imposing on others in your environment, creating a mutually safe and reinforcing system necessary for collaborative growth to occur.

Initially, I thought of MIT as a place for people who “know a lot of things.” Now, I see it as a place for people who have reached a point where they realize how little they truly know and have an innate desire to ask questions, explore new ideas, and pursue growth. That shift in viewpoint is a critical difference. The former perspective will lead to intimidation, comparison, and imposter syndrome, while the latter is inviting, inclusive, and an essential ingredient for building a culture of innovation.

Building a feedback culture
Another lesson in the “soft skills” of leadership came in System Dynamics. Our professor asked our class, “Who likes receiving feedback?” Every hand quickly went up. This wasn’t surprising. After all, as a self-selected group of executives pursuing an MBA at MIT, you’d expect there be a high level of interest in personal development. However, he then asked, “Who likes giving feedback to others, with that same level of genuine enthusiasm?” All but a few hands dropped. As business leaders, he asked for us to pause, remember that visual, and consider how the impact of that common imbalance may be manifesting across our organizations.

While people tend to like getting feedback, they don’t equally embrace the opportunities to provide it to others, let alone think about designing systems and cultures around it. Any complex and dynamic system is composed of different balancing and reinforcing feedback loops, and understanding what these are and how they work is critical to designing and managing environments for intended impact. Whether you’re an electrical engineer, a climatologist, or a business leader trying to understand why new change initiatives eventually fail – the science, models, and principles of feedback management in complex systems is the same.

Throughout the program, we learned what good feedback practice looks like, and how to use it to build innovative teams and organizations. One of the keys was to practice giving and receiving it – a lot. I probably engaged in the equivalent of 10 years’ worth of “typical” performance reviews during this program, considering all the feedback sessions we conducted in each class, numerous individual and 360 peer reviews, and 1:1s with our advisors, executive coaches, and mentors. By practicing these skills, along with the applied science of System Dynamics, you will challenge your understanding of the role that feedback plays in your organizations and, more importantly, what to do about it.

How can improving your “soft skills” help you as a leader?