Master of Arts in Leadership Compared to the Traditional MBA Degree Path


By Doug Paxton, PhD

As our nation and world continue to be buffeted by the adaptive challenges of 2020-2021, we notice how the uncertain times have led many of us to reflect upon what matters most in our work and lives going forward. People are looking to education as a way to reboot their careers and live more fully into their calling/purpose. The Financial Times reported recently that “64 percent of business schools have seen a rise in domestic applicants.” I share my story below and offer an educational alternative to the traditional MBA degree — a curriculum and Master’s degree based on Leadership — that might be of service to you and worthy of your consideration.


Deciding on Graduate School

Years ago, and at a less dramatic time in history, I was unsure about my future and was looking to find a career where I could make a difference. Graduate school beckoned. I hoped I would find my calling in the process. I enrolled in a program that Yale invented — a Master’s in Public and Private Management (MPPM) — one that was essentially an MBA, designed “to train managers who could be effective in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors, and who would have the skills, understanding, and perspective to move among those sectors effectively.” A few years later they changed the degree into an MBA. Even Yale couldn’t compete with the success of the MBA degree. In 1986 there was no such thing as an MA in Leadership for me to even consider as an option. The Saint Mary’s College Master of Arts in Leadership established in 2001 was one of the first stand-alone leadership Master’s programs in the country.


History of the MBA

Graduate business education has been around since 1900 (Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth), and Harvard coined the name MBA in 1908. In the U.S. today, more than 100,000 MBAs are granted each year, and the popularity shows no sign of waning. In 1986 it felt like a safe move for me in an uncertain time. MBAs are still considered a better investment compared to other graduate degrees.  


MBAs have Evolved

Fifteen years later (2003), after varied experiences working in the corporate, nonprofit and public sectors, I found myself back in business education, this time as the founding program director of the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA in Sustainable Management. We sought to bring social and environmental responsibility to business education, not by adding a few courses to the traditional MBA curriculum, but by integrating the values of social justice and environmental sustainability into the design of each course. In 2015, in an article examining which MBA programs help get people where they want to go in their careers, Duff McDonald of the New York Times wrote, “If you want to change the world, go to Presidio Graduate School.” Presidio and other innovative MBA programs have helped reshape the landscape of business education. At Saint Mary’s, we are proud of the tagline of our MBA programs, “Think Globally, Lead Responsibly.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, my calling was coming slowly into focus: How do we bring values, responsibility, and an emphasis in leadership development to education?


Story of Office Depot

In preparing to launch a new kind of MBA program at Presidio, I attended a conference in the spring of 2002 called Business Environment Learning and Leadership (BELL). The keynote presentation was by Bruce Nelson, CEO of Office Depot. In his remarks, Nelson explained how the company was about to create a new position — Director of Social Responsibility — to try and better cope with things like environmental protests, more responsible sourcing, etc. As the world’s largest seller of paper products, Office Depot was a convenient target for those dedicated to saving the old growth forests or protesting working conditions in other countries. We had the opportunity to ask questions of Nelson, and mine was the following:

"We are a room of business educators, developing people that you hire. You are our customer. How are we doing? What do you need from us?"

He smiled and affirmed the need for people who know accounting, finance, and marketing, and acknowledged that MBAs were good at bringing those skills. He then paused and chose his next words thoughtfully:

"What we really need is people with emotional intelligence, not people who are good at getting an A. We operate in 40 countries and deal with enormous complexity; teamwork and collaboration are essential. I don’t know what is happening, but the people we are hiring are needing more of that kind of social intelligence, and we are having to figure out how to train them on the job. They don’t seem to be developing enough social and emotional intelligence in business school."

His words resonated deeply for me. In my own experience, the courses from my business education that were still relevant to my life years later were the courses that taught me about leadership, group dynamics, and interpersonal skills — in short, social and emotional intelligence. No matter what industry one hails from, if a person is going up the career ladder, their job will increasingly be about working with and influencing other people. For me, leadership and interpersonal skills are practices we evolve along our life journeys, not destinations that can be checked off the to-do list. Bruce Nelson was reminding us of the old adage, “develop the soft skills for the hard results.” As Garth Saloner, Dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (2006-2016) put it:

"The harder skills of finance and supply chain management and accounting and so on — those have become more standardized in management education, have become kind of a hygiene factor everybody ought to know. Those skill sets are pretty widely available; to be perfectly honest, there’s not a ton of differentiation in those across a number of providers. But the soft-skill sets, the real leadership, the ability to work with others and through others to execute — that is still in very scarce supply."

Business educators were increasingly paying attention to what Nelson and Saloner were highlighting. Saloner went on to say:

"There are a set of leadership skills that can be taught. They have to be taught experientially; this is not something you can lecture about. You have to put people in small groups, give them leadership tasks, and have them work them through."

Saloner’s words spoke directly to my experience as well. Leadership is one degree that we cannot learn in isolation; we must practice together. We had built the inaugural Presidio curriculum based on four basic curriculum strands: money, markets, sustainability and people. The “people” strand was the one charged with developing the kind of leadership skills that Nelson and Saloner described. After launching and running the Presidio program for a year, I understood more about why it was tough to go more deeply into leadership development within an MBA curriculum — there simply wasn’t enough time to cover everything needed for success and responsibility in today’s business world.


Invitation to Saint Mary’s

A few years later, Dr. Ken Otter invited me to teach a course with him in the MA in Leadership program. From the start, it was a revelation for me to see the list of courses. Here are a few highlights:

  • The Practice of Building Learning Communities
  • Values in Action
  • Leadership and Systems Change
  • Building Cross-Cultural Capacity
  • Team Coaching and Group Facilitation
  • Sustainable Organizational Change
  • Leadership, Systems and Interdependence
  • The Future of (Your) Leadership

These were the same topics that I had been interested in all my life, I just never realized they could be combined under the umbrella of leadership. When I began teaching at Saint Mary’s in 2006, I realized that the transformative and collaborative learning that Nelson and Saloner were describing was at the center of the whole curriculum.   


Complementary Education

John Coleman '08

In an MBA program, leadership is understandably one strand among many topics. Finance, accounting, and marketing are important subjects that require a lot of attention. If people had the time and money, I would recommend they get an MBA and an MA in Leadership as complementary degrees. We have alumni who hold both an MA in Leadership and MBA degree, precisely because they know how crucial leadership skills are to their future, and how little time the MBA curriculum devotes to leadership skills alone. As John Coleman, 2008 graduate of Saint Mary’s MA in Leadership shared,

"As someone who’s attained both a MA in Leadership and a MBA I can say both are important and serve a purpose. The MA provided a foundation for me to continue my graduate studies in a more thoughtful and substantive way. [Then] matriculating to Duke’s Fuqua School of Business (MBA) I found myself totally prepared to attack multi-faceted business cases in a way that was different from my classmates that was directly influenced by the MA in Leadership. Now that I have finished my formal education and I am practicing all that I learned in both programs, I recognize that the MA in Leadership provided the foundation for my grasp of complex business problems and solutions, both quantitative and qualitative."

If you are passionate about working with people and finding ways to address the huge challenges our culture and world are facing right now, then committing yourself to the practice of leadership may be a worthy direction and focus for you. As Dr. Otter describes:

"There are many people who find it is leadership that is needed in their enterprises. They realize they do not need an MBA, for they can access business acumen from experience, other team members, or short courses. The complexity and collaboration of leadership education lends itself to an immersive graduate learning experience."


There is something special about the people who are drawn to the concept of leadership and take the risk to study a relatively new discipline that can require some explanation for those reviewing your resume. Three common themes I have seen in the folks who show up for an MA in Leadership:

  1. Passion for Change: Whether they are in their twenties or in their seventies, or from the public, private, or nonprofit sectors, they have a shared passion for making a difference in the world.
  2. Feeling the Pain and Limitations of Current Organizational Culture: Our learners come to our MA in Leadership program because they know there has to be a better way for human beings to work with others and through others to innovate, collaborate and be successful. They have felt the challenges of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in the 21st Century and want more tools for navigating and transforming those organizational cultures.
  3. Self as Instrument of Leadership: People seeking a degree in leadership know that they have more gifts to share with the world. They are dedicated to learning how to bring their best to their families, organizations, and communities. 

Dr. Cheryl Getz, Department Chair for Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego, opened her external review of the Saint Mary’s MA in Leadership program with the following observation:

"There is a great need for professional leadership education that responds to the complex challenges of the 21st century, and an increasing number of graduate Leadership Programs around the country have attempted to meet this need. The Master of Arts in Leadership program at Saint Mary’s College of California is distinctive in its curriculum, approach, and delivery, providing a unique and tailored learning experience for working adults that would be difficult to find in any single MA program in the US."

As our lives resurface from an extraordinary time, we invite you to find and take your next step in leadership. In the words of poet Mary Oliver, how can you make the most of “your one wild and precious life?”


This article is a revised version of a blog post originally written in 2016.