Purpose During the last 40 years, the growth and impact of UK business schools have been significant. Relatively few studies have reviewed how business school deans emerge and grow. This paper aims to explore the experiences and psychometric profiles of UK business school leaders to understand their tenures, problems, dilemmas and succession issues. Design/methodology/approach The study comprised 16 semistructured interviews with business school deans and MyersBriggs Type Indicator (MBTI) questionnaires completed by deans and aspiring deans (associate deans and heads of department). The study uses the executive life cycle and concepts of social capital as theoretical frameworks to understand the dean's role. Findings The study revealed a pattern of individuals working in their first deanship at their third business school. Their career trajectories highlighted the usefulness of consultancy skills similar to those of a partner in a professional service firm. The importance of the dean's role in terms of business school fit, creating a differentiation strategy and team building were emphasised. The psychometric preferences of the deans in the sample indicated Jungian extroversion, tough mindedness, seeing patterns and making connections, strategic thinking and a tendency to bring issues to closure. Recommendations are made for the development of a more heterogeneous, transnational cadre of business school deans and improved dialogue with heads of universities to understand the positive contribution of business school leaders as changing business models are needed in turbulent times. Originality/value There are few explanations of the roles and functioning of business school deans in practice. The insights gained are valuable for business school deans and are, more broadly, of interest to heads of universities and executive search firms. The paper is theoretically and practically relevant to building leadership capabilities in knowledge intensive organisations and professional service firms.