What’s missing from this picture?

You want to be a leader, you do an open leadership course, an MBA or equivalent and you learn what leadership is and what it takes to deliver. But did you learn how to lead, or only what leadership is? By Oliver Mack, head of learning at Common Purpose

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Amidst all the hype about the failings of MBAs, greedy bankers and corporate executives, it’s tempting to point a finger at where they went to complete their undergraduate or post-graduate qualifications and say that’s where it all starts.

MBAs appeared to be a carte blanche for success. A learning programme from some of the leading business minds in the world, an assured network of highly motivated and exceptionally bright peers from around the world combined with case studies from alumni that will make you giddy; who wouldn’t be tempted?

The problem is that they often left managers in a bubble, reinforcing dangerous assumptions about how the world works and how to lead change within it. As we move on from such a wide acceptance of MBAs as a solution, what alternatives are we offered?

It hasn’t taken long for theories of adaptive, wicked and complex problems to be put forward as the new Holy Grail. While these provide great descriptions of what business strategist Peter Senge would call “Systemic Problems”, they don’t provide any great insights into how to prepare leaders to be able to deal with them. So what is missing in executive education?

At the heart of leadership is a widely recognised need for self-awareness and much improved inter and intra-personal skills. It’s no surprise to me that research consistently finds that the greatest participant learning comes from the diversity of their course group.

What leaders need to know
Across Europe cuts to the public sector have been well publicised. For the private sector the fog from the recession has only just started to lift, and for leaders in both sectors it will mean finding more innovative and efficient ways of operating. Partnerships will need to be leveraged; teams will need to work more collaboratively rather than in silos; doing more with less will be the modus operandi.

In the current climate being able to communicate effectively with stakeholders, to harness the energy of teams to work against the odds with other teams they share little with in terms of historical common ground, is of increasing importance. Leaders will need to build coalitions across complicated and geographically dispersed groups of stakeholders. The commentary from the World Economic Forum in Davos this year sent a message of the shift of world power to economies in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, so the ability to work across cultures has never been more important.

This not only means understanding cultural idiosyncrasies and context, but working on a different timeline and being innovative with the use of digital communication and that all-powerful tool of communication, the telephone, to develop relationships and keep the wheels turning.

Eventually we all need to step outside of our team or department where our position makes us the boss. Problems will arise that cross into our department from somewhere else or that we can no longer make progress on without working with others. While leaders need both tutorial and experiential based education, it is the latter that prepares them to deal with complex change, not the former.

Leaders need to be confronted with real life situations that shake them up, get them thinking differently and force them to work with peers they may consider less able, less successful or simply not relevant to them because they come from another organisation or have a different professional background.

Learning how to lead
It’s common for senior executives to reach a moment of clarity when they realise their learning is more about themselves, and how they relate to others, than about having a perfect grasp of a leadership theory. The issue is they may not have had the opportunity to step back and consider what their experience means for their leadership.

Having worked in experiential education for over twenty years, and with senior executives for the last six, this comes as a constant surprise to me. My opinion is reinforced by the CEOs and senior executives I meet, who readily agree with the need for more than education about what leadership is. They have had to learn from experience – the hard way – and now understand the value for their staff to do the same, but at an earlier stage.

When this works people come alive. They approach complex management challenges, crisis and new projects in completely new ways. They consider multiple facets of their decisions and look for leadership to make change happen in the most unlikely places – in different departments, from junior members of staff, or from community leaders in faraway lands. My most recent experience of alternative routes for facilitating this leadership development involves a concentrated two day workshop where real life case studies set in a city are explored through role play that put business, government, media, agencies, social enterprise, community groups and investors in the picture.

Leadership emerges from the most unlikely individuals and groups. We aren’t the only organisation experimenting with using community based experiences in executive education. Many FTSE 100 companies are working with us and others to harness this as more than just an opportunity for volunteering hours to be achieved.

Traditionally the poor cousin to this style of leadership development has been teleconference based learning.

However, if your positioning is that of an environmentally conscious organisation that scrutinises travel, or if your budget is tight for development yet you need a refresh or a clearer view of wider context, is it not an option to consider?

As with all these things success won’t come from presenting a clear leadership model, slick PowerPoint, or a discussion around leadership traits. It’s instead an open and honest conversation about people, the problems they are facing and the environment they are operating in. It allows us to peer into someone else’s organisation to see the complexity and to consider afresh how we are dealing with our own.

New approaches to executive education must be prepared to break with traditional formats and, more importantly, to be daring enough to recognise that leadership development must be about people, their experiences and the reality of the environments they are facing, not only about models and qualifications.

Whatever approach we take, the one suggestion I cannot fathom is shelving the development of leaders when the world is crying out for people to stand up and make a difference. It calls for courage, collaborative working and the ability to gain and use knowledge in real time. Some of that can be learned in a classroom, but without learning how to lead it may only reinforce your existing view of the world.