How business students think about leadership: a qualitative study on leader identity and meaning-making

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Business schools face increasing criticism for their one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development. Too much emphasis is placed on knowledge and skills building and the developmental needs of managers while insufficient attention is paid to purposeful student leadership development and to the underlying cognitive components that drive leadership development. The present study takes a cognitive approach to leadership development and explores how cognitive schemas of leadership manifest in students. We collected qualitative data from 510 undergraduate business students to analyze students’ leader identity and its relatedness to their leadership-structure schema and implicit leadership theory. Results show that students’ leader identity is related to their leadership-structure schema and their implicit leadership theory. More specifically, alignment between these cognitive schemas of leadership strengthens leader identity. In addition, results show that the content of the leadership-structure schema serves as a constraint or a catalyst for possible future alignment between the cognitive schemas of leadership. Implications for leadership development are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)168-191
JournalAcademy of Management Learning & Education
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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