Leader’s Tale of Trials, Tribulations, and Three Master’s Degree Students

I had a possibility earlier this year to focus on studying a bit more and had the pleasure of working with 3 Master’s degree students at Aalto University. And where I thought I went to learn more about the strategy process, I learned more from these ladies.

Walking into a Highly Competitive Classroom with mixed feelings

First of all, when walking to the first classroom session, I had mixed feelings. Would I be there to increase the age average? How would I feel about these students? Can I give anything to them? Do I still know how to study? I did increase the age average, but I believe I was also able to provide some added value to at least these three ladies that asked me to join their group for the class assignment.

Mostly I was surprised by how the teaching was done. Every class was a competition. You were measured on how many times you were picked to answer, how visually attractive your slides were, and whether you would be the lucky one to have the highest score since you won the running contest the be first in the front of the class and be able to present your weekly assignment.

The Cost of Competition

I was conflicted since, in my mind, the kind of behavior enforced with these actions is a competitive and performance-oriented mindset. The emphasis is on being selected and recognized as the best, whether through answering questions, creating visually appealing presentations, or winning contests. This behavior can motivate some individuals but can create a high-pressure environment and potentially discourage individuals who may not excel in the competitive atmosphere.

So what happened to collaboration, creativity, and teamwork? These could be more valued, and a competitive atmosphere may hinder these values. There’s also a point that a high-pressure competitive environment can sometimes lead to burnout, stress, and even unethical behavior. So I started to think about the reason for implementing a highly competitive atmosphere.

Competition is generally viewed as a positive force that drives innovation, efficiency, and economic growth. What company wouldn’t like to find ways to produce goods and services at lower costs, which leads to lower prices for consumers and higher profits for firms? In universities, competition among students can motivate them to perform at their best and strive for excellence, but there are trade-offs to this high-pressure competitive environment. For example, in addition to high levels of stress, and anxiety, competition could create a sense of individualism and discourage collaboration and cooperation among students.

The Leader’s Dilemma, balancing motivation and collaboration

As a leader, the situation places me in a tight spot: In the future recruitments should I opt for high motivation, result- oriented and drive to improve even if it would bring poor skills, risk-taking, and unhealthy competition? It is not as black and white, but I must admit I wouldn’t have met today’s university competitiveness criteria.

Lessons from Master’s Students

Let’s get back to the ladies I worked with. They were excellent examples of highly motivated, realistic team players. All of them were studying full-time and working on the side. I can still remember from my past it wasn’t the easiest combination.
I was the most impressed by their maturity level in leading each other. They had been wiser than the university and professors to remove unnecessary pressure and stick with the essentials. And I have to say, I would be happy to work with any of the ladies also in the future.

Breaking the mold

So did I learn anything else than the University and Economics department is ok for me in small portions but not as a full-time experience ?
Yes, I did. We, media, us leaders and several other groups are talking about, different generations as if everyone int he category would fit the same mold. That, if any will increase biased perceptions. We can point out the characteristics of ages, but in the end, no one fits the generalization. As a leader, you can’t afford to lead the masses. You need to lead people as individuals and get to know them, their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses to be a good leader for that person.