Master’s in Organizational Leadership vs. MBA: Which Degree Is Right for You?

What degrees equip business professionals for leadership opportunities? Compare the unique benefits of MAOL and MBA degrees and decide which is right for you.
An organizational leader stands at the head of a conference table leading a team meeting.

The business world is changing. Adapting to new technologies, competing in a global marketplace, and evolving ethically and sustainably all present challenges to organizations today. Progressive business leaders steer change by embracing new strategies that lead teams into the future.

The leadership story business professionals tell depends on their goals and the goals of their organizations, but it all starts with choosing a graduate program with opportunities for career growth and advancement. Both a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) can equip graduates with the expertise to make decisions that propel their companies — and their careers — into the future.

Definitions: MAOL vs. MBA

Many aspiring business leaders may be considering a master’s in organizational leadership vs. an MBA for launching or furthering their business careers. To distinguish these degrees from one another, looking at their basic definitions is the first step.

What Is an MBA?

In essence, an MBA is a graduate degree offering a broad overview of business theory and practice. MBA degrees aim to give graduates an overall understanding of general business management and how business functions.

A person doesn’t need an undergraduate degree in business or even a business background to pursue an MBA. Professionals in science and technology, for example, may choose to earn MBAs to move their careers forward. Graduates with BAs in liberal arts are also accepted into MBA programs in large numbers.

Because of their advanced and often specialized education, job seekers who have earned an MBA degree tend to be more desirable to potential employers than candidates whose business studies stopped at the undergraduate level.

What Is an MAOL?

While MBA and master’s in organizational leadership programs both can lead to advanced careers in business, an MAOL offers prospective students — whether they hold an undergraduate degree in business, science, or a liberal arts field — core business skills and an approach to leadership  that can be applied across sectors.

A typical MAOL program teaches students to apply both traditional and innovative leadership approaches to specific organizational situations and problems. Its curriculum explores strategic decision-making in the context of an organization’s unique culture.


Key Ways to Distinguish Between an MBA and an MAOL

Considering the main qualities and benefits that distinguish one type of graduate degree from another can clarify which degree is best for a prospective student drawn to the rewarding challenge of management and leadership.

Similarities of MBA and MAOL Degrees

An MBA and an MAOL have significant similarities: First and foremost, they take undergraduate studies to a higher plane of complexity and specialization than a bachelor’s degree. For example, unlike a bachelor’s in business administration, an MBA and an MAOL are graduate degrees that not only focus on group projects that mirror the collaborative teamwork of the workplace; they also teach you to lead teams effectively and inclusively.

This shared attribute translates into opportunity. In the competitive job market, candidates who have earned an advanced business degree, such as an MBA or an MAOL, stand out as more desirable than candidates who completed their business studies with an undergraduate degree. That’s because employers value the real-world focus both MBA and MAOL degree holders can offer. 

In addition, both degree programs cover traditional business operations while at the same time emphasizing the in-depth exploration of groundbreaking business methods and strategies relevant to the future and across settings, such as leveraging big data and digital analytics.

Differences Between MBA and MAOL Degrees

When considering the two degrees, prospective students benefit from also pinpointing the main difference between them: their respective emphases.

MBA Degrees Emphasize Business Disciplines

An MBA degree program focuses on the issues MBA graduates can expect to tackle in the business world. 

The following are some of the disciplines a typical MBA program explores:

  • Business analytics
  • Marketing strategy
  • Accounting best practices
  • Corporate finance
  • Client relationships
  • Development of strategies for long-term growth
  • Statistics
  • Economics

Of the above, the top issue an MBA degree program equips students to address is developing strategies for long-term business growth. Related issues key to the MBA are:

  • uncovering insights to improve business performance
  • learning how to use data and analytics to drive decision making
  • examining business practices to improve efficiency
  • exploring how the macro business climate affects organizational operations
  • understanding the role innovation plays in business success 

MAOL Degrees Emphasize People and Organizations

In contrast with an MBA degree program, an MAOL degree program focuses primarily on organizational issues and the human dynamics that drive them. Its curriculum highlights strategies for guiding and inspiring employees to shape their organizations through strategic decision-making.

The following are some of the human relationship–centered organizational issues a typical MAOL program explores:

  • Applying ethical leadership practices
  • Fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Strategizing innovative decision-making and problem-solving
  • Understanding multicultural workplace dynamics

Career Opportunities for Advancement and Growth: MBA vs. MAOL

Both MBA and MAOL graduates are equipped with the education to develop leadership careers that will prepare them to influence the direction of business in a multitude of organizations, public and private.

Roles for MBA Degree Holders

An MBA degree primes graduates to move forward into prospective business leadership positions at companies in a wealth of sectors, such as manufacturing, retail, healthcare, and banking. 

Leadership opportunities for MBA graduates include the following roles:

  • Financial manager
  • Operations manager
  • Market research analyst
  • Merchandising manager
  • Public relations specialist
  • Marketing manager
  • Human resources specialist
  • Medical and health services manager
  • Training and development specialist
  • Executive leader
  • Chief executive officer (CEO)

Roles for MAOL Degree Holders

In equal measure, an MAOL degree offers professionals varied opportunities to wield influence and apply their expertise in for-profit organizations, nonprofit organizations, government, healthcare, insurance, and education, among other sectors.

MAOL degrees prepare graduates for a variety of professional careers in roles such as the following:

  • Operations manager
  • Sales manager
  • Leadership coach
  • Human resources manager
  • Director of Talent and Development
  • Communications director
  • Small business entrepreneur
  • Nonprofit executive director
  • Chief diversity officer

MBA and MAOL Program Concentrations

Today’s graduate programs in business not only offer core coursework but also give students a wealth of specific concentrations or specializations to choose from within the discipline. MBA and MAOL programs offer students the chance to focus on a specific area of interest, sometimes called a track, so they can customize their business education to fit their desired career goals.

MBA programs may offer specializations in areas such as:

  • Supply chain management
  • Entertainment management
  • Healthcare management
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Marketing
  • Brand management

On the other hand, typical MAOL program concentrations can include:

  • Nonprofit and public leadership
  • Spirituality and leadership
  • Ethics and leadership
  • Library leadership
  • Executive and workplace coaching
  • Human resource management
  • Information services and technology
  • Strategic management

Find Your Strength as a Leader

Ready to become a next-generation leader? Choose an MBA or MAOL program with a future-focused curriculum and author your own leadership story. Learn more about St. Catherine University’s online Master of Business Administration and online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership. Each program allows students to put business strategies to the test in a flexible learning environment committed to their success, positioning them to lead teams forward into an ethical, equitable, and transformative future. Discover how earning an advanced degree can help you develop the skills to become a leader in your field.


Recommended Readings

How to Find a Female Mentor in Your Profession

What Can You Do With an MBA?

7 Inspirational Women in Business and Tech



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China Houston, “The MAOL Degree Explained”

Hiscox, "The 10 Biggest Challenges Businesses Face Today"

Houston Chronicle, "Differences Between an MBA and a Bachelor's in Business Administration"

Indeed Career Guide, “What Are the 4 Basic Functions of Management?”

IntelligentHQ, "How Traditional Business Practices Are Becoming Digitised"

Investopedia, “Master of Business Administration (MBA)”

U.S. News & World Report, “5 Hot Jobs for MBA Graduates”