Imagine a big room in the attic of a rural hotel in the Swiss mountains. There are 8 people, 2 facilitators (clown/ consultants) and 6 participants diverse in terms of age and country of origin. This is a leadership lab run by AZck! Learning and Development in conjunction with Tom Greder.
I went to this programme as a participant really unsure what leadership can learn from clowning but open to finding out. The journey over the 3 days brought us out of our comfort zones (with our permission) and helped us each to address areas of development we wanted to explore. I have never before seen a programme so tailored to the needs of the individual.
Like many leadership programmes, we explored the areas of self-awareness and our impact on others. However in contrast to the usual programmes, we really entered unknown territory. Our journey mirrored some of the challenges of life outside the lab: leading in ambiguous situations, with limited resources and having to improvise in the spotlight (although in this case, there really was a spotlight!)
We often learn a lot from times when we are stretched… and this was one of those occasions – a very special one indeed! We learnt and laughed so much!
So I ask myself the question in hindsight what has leadership got to learn from clowning? Surprisingly for me, quite a lot! So many of the regular leadership themes emerged in the act of clowning: presence, vulnerability, connection with others, leadership and followership, adaptability and so much more. But instead of reading it from a textbook or listening to theory, we were in a laboratory, and we ourselves were the subject of our own experiments. I can’t think of a more engaging way to learn.
A recent article in the FT by Maxime Boersma entitled ‘We want coaching,’ say high-fliers shows how perceptions of coaching have changed dramatically over recent years.
The Head of Learning and Development at a UK organisation describes how “Executive coaching is increasingly sought by senior leaders as a space where they can have reflective conversations about their work and be challenged on their thinking and approach.”
Over my life-time I have been on a journey of gaining expertise in the actuarial field, as an IT consultant, as an operations director and now as a leadership development consultant and coach. After-all, expertise gives credibility.
In my quest to learn more and know more, I never really considered the down-side of expertise – surely it can only be a good thing? This morning I was reading a review of a book called the ‘Reflective Practitioner’ by Donald Schön and I was reminded that expertise can actually restrict our thinking. It can narrow our vision. We expect that the challenge we are facing is the same one as the one we saw last week or last month with similar characteristics. In fact, if we have ‘over-learned’ what we know we can become ‘selectively inattentive to phenomena that do not fit’ our past experience . The risk is that we misdiagnose the issue we are facing and presume that we know the answer.
Donald Schon describes a process of ‘reflection in action’.
‘The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.’ (Schön 1983: 68)
I am often struck by the questions my kids ask. I accept so many things in the world which they question and that certainly challenges me. I am reminded here of the benefits of not accepting or presuming, but seeing each challenge we face with fresh eyes and ‘puzzlement’.
As an authority figure, we are typically expected to know the answers i.e. have the expertise. In leadership, our ability to ask insightful questions is so much more important so we can broaden our field of vision.
Image Source: http://fc00.deviantart.net/fs70/i/2010/288/c/1/restricted_vision_by_popcorn_nut-d30syuz.jpg
Looking at things through a different lens can often help us see a situation differently and learn. This was exactly what struck me when I came across this quote recently… except the lens in this case is more like a mirror – so we can understand ourselves and our impact on others a little more.
Image Source: http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2012/08/07/157743116/does-the-mirror-reflect-how-you-feel
Leadership in the age of complexity… an interesting article
This is an interesting article on the transition from Heroic Leadership to Leadership as a ‘Hosting’ activity. As the article describes, Heroic Leadership relies on the assumption that someone can be in control which is impossible in this age of inter-connectedness.
Leadership in the age of complexity
This is an interesting article on the transition from Heroic Leadership to Leadership as a ‘Hosting’ activity. As the article describes, Heroic Leadership relies on the assumption that someone can be in control, which is impossible in this age of inter-connectedness. No one person can offer solutions to every problem and control the environment through their implementation.
This paper suggests that leadership is more about inviting in and ‘hosting’ people who can help solve the challenges we face. ‘Leaders-as-hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and possibilities for action.’
From a leadership development perspective, we should reflect on whether we are attempting to be the sterotypical charismatic leader, the person with all the answers, or indeed the person who is engaging in meaningful conversations to deliver substantive change?
I wrote in a previous post about the benefits of experimentation to open up our minds to possibilities. I heard today of a cookery book which intersperses QR codes along the way so you can link into a video clip using your phone, iPad etc.. I love it! Such ideas come about through experimentation, making mistakes, learning and enhancing.
Someone mentioned to me yesterday that we are rearing a generation of kids who feel the need to be perfect. Many won’t attempt new things if they feel they won’t be good at them. How do we change this mind-set to one of curiosity and interest in the intended and unintended outcomes?
Since my trip to Harvard in May I am now attempting to view the world as a laboratory where I can observe, experiment, challenge and hopefully innovate to see what emerges – particularly but not exclusively in the field of leadership. I have managed to spot learning opportunities in activities I was not even looking forward to. By approaching these tasks with a curious mind-set my motivation actually increased. I have been surprised at what I have learnt about myself. For example, I am finding that the broader my interests are, the more varied the ideas I generate. Suddenly the worlds of maths, art, sport, science and leadership are merging and I am seeing connections where I never saw them before. Not everything is a success but I am enjoying the journey.
I am attending a swimming session this evening which is way out of my league (in the fabulous new 50m pool in UCD). After a challenging start last week, I am nervous about what lies ahead, but most of all I am curious about what I will learn, not just about swimming, but about coaching, motivation, and the levels of endurance I can personally tolerate. I am hoping I will be still attending these swim sessions the next time I post!
Image Source: http://www.classroomjr.com
A key part of leadership is taking risks. Albert Eintstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. If we care deeply about something we will take a risk. If we have an illness and take the decision to take a drug that has potentially serious side-affects, we will take the drug if we feel it is a risk worth taking. In a work context we might speak out if we feel certain values that we care about are being dis-regarded. It is challenging sometimes to figure out what we care deeply about until we are faced with a situations which strike a chord with us.
Trevor Madigan of Facebook speaks about the culture of risk-taking in Facebook in the first part of this video clip. Facebook has demonstrated it’s willingness to take risks in pursuit of it’s mission “… to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” and not always with a successful outcome. Trevor asks the question ‘what would we do if we were not afraid?’ If we did not fear failure, the possibilities are endless.
In ‘The practice of Adaptive Leadership’ by Heifetz, Linsky and Grashow the authors suggest developing an experimental mind-set by ‘increasing our tolerance for a slightly higher level of risk-taking than we might have been comfortable with before’. They suggest small things to start with for example starting the day in a different way to usual e.g. getting up earlier or later or accepting invitations we would not usually accept. This type of low risk experimenting will shake things up a little and open us up to the possibilities that are out there.
I am now asking myself the question what new risks I will be willing to take this week in the interest of something I care deeply about?
Facing up to an adaptive challenge requires us to put the problem at the centre, depersonalise it and then look at the various the various stakeholders and where they sit in relation to the problem. That all sounds very logical and depersonalised, however it gets interesting when we look at the part that we ourselves have in creating the problem or as Linksy and Heifetz put acknowledging ‘our part of the mess’.
The benefits of doing this are (a) setting a good example for accountability and (b) we can then step up and fix part of the problem. Fixing our part of the problem though will often require us to challenge our values and loyalties and might require behavioural change on our part which is easier said than done.
I recently watched a movie called ’12 o’ clock high’ which illustrated this challenge really well. The movie is about an American bomber pilot unit in World War II which at the start of the movie are taking heavy losses. The pilots are incredibly loyal to their commander and him to them, but this gets in the way of the mission (the adaptive challenge). He is replaced by Brigadier Savage who takes a firm hand on the pilot unit and starts clocking up successes. Ultimately however he gets so close to the men that he begins to develop the same loyalties as his predecessor and loses perspective.
The movie illustrates the challenges of ‘being in the action’ and ‘on the balcony’ at the same time and particularly the challenge of looking at the part that we play in proceedings from ‘the balcony’. Commander General Pritchard brought the risk of ‘over-identifying with his men’ to Savages’s attention, but despite this he did not change his ways. Knowing we need to change is necessary but insufficient if we are to effect change.
So how can we more successfully do this? Heifetz, Linksy and Grashow bring this to life in their book ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’. They link their work on adaptive leadership with that of their colleagues Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey on ‘immunity to change’. It requires a diagnostic mind-set and an ability to step back from the action to reflect on deep-seated loyalties and values that we probably don’t advertise.
I will walk through this process with this movie in mind. The first step is to identify the behaviours that we would like to see more or less of in order to make progress on the adaptive challenge (e.g. provide leadership opportunities to the pilots in the pilot unit so that they might ultimately lead their own successful missions and enable Savage to return to his role and increase chances of overall success against the enemy). Secondly we should identify the loyalties and values that underlie the need for this change (e.g. loyalty to country, commanding officer and own career path). Then we should identify things that we are doing or not doing that keeps us from honouring this commitment i.e. what behaviours are we demonstrating that fly in the face of the behaviours we identified in step 1? (e.g. continuing to personally lead bombing missions). What then are the conflicting values or loyalties that drive this behaviour? (e.g. loyalty to and over-identification with pilot unit that Savage is commanding). The question then is that by continuing these behaviours, what am I protecting myself against? (e.g. losses in the air which I would feel responsible for if I do not take a part in the action?).
By peeling back the layers of the onion we might start to challenge some of our assumptions and values that work against what we are ultimately trying to achieve. By taking some initial low-risk experiments we can hopefully bit by bit put aside some of the inhibiting loyalties and values we hold, in service of achieving our ultimate goal. Consider doing this with the support of a partner. They can provide insights we might ourselves miss and can challenge us to stay the course.
‘Where do we begin?’. The week started with a question and ended with many, which was very appropriate considering we were there to learn how to tackle leadership development in the face of adaptive challenges.
We were a class of 62 from 20 different counties and 5 different continents. We were in a leadership laboratory where we were our very own guinea pigs! If an outsider stepped into our world last week, they might have seen a group engaged in heated debates (as might be expected) or they might have seen something less conventional e.g. a group engaged in a shared singing experience with everyone singing different tunes at the same time and importantly with not a consonant within ear-shot. There was not a dull day in the entire experience.
I will take many things away from the week. I will share just three of the themes here and I hope to elaborate on these and others in the coming weeks and months.
The first is one of leadership terminology. During the course of the week we became accustomed to talking about leadership as an activity rather than a position. Individuals can be in roles of authority and may or may not engage in acts of leadership from that position. Individuals equally may exercise leadership without any formal authority at all.
An approach to leadership challenges: we each arrived on the programme with a leadership challenge which we faced. We worked in teams over three days to tackle each leadership challenge. Day by day we were equipped with new thinking which dramatically increased our effectiveness in real time. The approach involved putting the problem at the centre, identifying factions/ interest groups relating to the issue at hand, what motivates them and what potential losses they would face should the challenge be resolved. This approach is something which I can see as beneficial to my coaching practice immediately.
The third big concept which I took away was necessity to manage the heat in the system: I had read the book Leadership on the Line in advance of the programme (written by 2 of the faculty Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz) and I had become familiar with the notion of there being a ‘productive zone of disequilibrium’ in order to make change happen. Reading the theory however was very different to experiencing it first-hand. We encountered the challenges of both too much and too little heat in the different groups and whilst both yielded the same result (a lack of progress), both felt very different and different strategies were required to move the group forward in each case.
This programme used many different pedagogies in order to maximise the learning experience. It has been finely tuned over 14 years to deliver as they term it ‘above and below the neck learning’. We were warned to make a quiet re-entry into our work environments. I have some concrete ideas of how to take the experience forward but I have many other thoughts and areas to explore over the longer term. Watch this space!
Image 1: The library.
Image 2: Eadine touching the foot of John Harvard (which apparently brings good luck!).
This is an incredible story by the Center of Creative Leadership. It paints the picture of how a Swedish Executive, Ingar Skaug, took on the CEO role at Scandinavian Air after the top two layers of management had been wiped out by a plane crash.
From Grief to Growth