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16 May 2023

Jean-Yves Mercier: “The legitimacy of an EMBA degree is felt from within”

In studying for an EMBA, many seek a legitimacy that will boost their standing in the eyes of their professional counterparts. The good news is that they find it. This legitimacy is not the only recognition they receive from others, however.

So what is legitimacy? While the term refers to the law – “lex” in Latin – and therefore to what is justified by the law books, we quickly understand that holding an EMBA degree today does not impart any special rights. We live in a world where a diploma creates opportunities but doesn’t guarantee much if the holder is unable to show he or she is worthy of it. Max Weber, one of the first economists and sociologists of the early 20th century, defined two other important meanings of the term which he called traditional legitimacy and charismatic legitimacy.

Traditional legitimacy is the almost sacred character transmitted by a social norm. It’s what many of our EMBA candidates seek. “My degree will attest to my level”: “Like that, I’ll be part of the exclusive club of MBA holders.” This idea is not without merit, far from it. The EMBA is one of those prestigious degrees that give their holder a certain aura for a while, especially in the eyes of their peers, but also through the symbolism of graduation ceremonies, complete with black robes and mortarboards. And of course, through the career opportunities that open up to those who seek them. But this legitimacy only lasts for a certain time. An external sign of academic success is nothing compared to our capacity to meet the demands of our job within a company.

Why? Because this certification of our competencies ultimately only symbolizes our acquisition of knowledge from a demanding programme. And knowledge can become obsolete at some point. On the other hand, what Weber calls charismatic legitimacy has a more lasting impact. In addition to offering cutting-edge knowledge, an EMBA transforms the person who completes it. From working in groups with people of different cultures and skillsets, acquiring a global overview of problems and issues, and being able to cut to the chase in the face of an accumulation of acquired knowledge and duties means that those with an EMBA acquire three key skills to effectively deal with the challenges thrown up by daily life in a company, as well as the capacity to guide colleagues to do the same. And finally, it allows them to take decisions where most would hesitate in the face of the potential impacts of their positions. These are lasting competencies that often allow EMBA holders to shine among their peers. There’s no need to show off the diploma or to brag about it, the quality of the actions speaks louder than the graduate’s official qualifications.

At the beginning of the 21st century, however, there is another legitimacy that Max Weber could not have foreseen, in other words, inner legitimacy. This is undoubtedly the strongest and most enduring. One of our alumni recently told some young graduates, “I got the job I wanted because I have an MBA. Not because I was recognized as the holder of a valuable passport, but because I felt a strength and legitimacy within me by having earnt an MBA.” The pride, and above all, the confidence gained from successfully completing these two years of intense transformation cannot be explained in simple terms, but is seen in the mutual recognition of those who’ve experienced it. And for each alumnus, it’s the assurance that comes from having climbed their personal Everest and shown what they are capable of. The fact that very few students fail doesn’t change this. Most of those who set out to conquer a summit prepare beforehand and manage to get to the top. And at the University of Geneva, we support our students through coaching and tutoring, consolidating links between the class and the alumni, with constant interaction so that by the end, each individual feels this deep legitimacy far more strongly than the one they expected to acquire.

Jean-Yves Mercier
Executive Director











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