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‘The leader as learner’

Executives must be ready to adapt to a changing environment

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Print this page by Gary Robertson
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Scott Snell of the University of Virginia’s Darden
School of Business. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Like other American mythologies, the idea of an all-knowing heroic executive  single-handedly leading a company to greatness is fading.

“I think the jury is back on that,” says Scott Snell, senior associate dean of executive education at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.  He says organizations are too complex and too dynamic to believe that any single individual could know everything.

At Darden, Snell says, “We think a lot more about developing collaborative leaders.” He adds that collaboration also extends to training leaders, with the professor facilitating the learning process among the participants in the classroom, rather than only lecturing. “The era of the ‘sage on the stage’ is kind of limited these days,” Snell says.

A white paper issued recently by the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs, Colo., says the concept of becoming a good leader and developing leadership in others is being debated, as the complexity of challenges facing organizations continues to escalate.

Meanwhile, the looming exodus of a generation of baby boomers from leadership ranks has accelerated the need to train members of upcoming generations to replace them.

Snell says one of the shifts in thinking focuses on the value of what leaders know. The world is changing so fast that certain knowledge and experience that might have been critical to an organization a few years ago is now obsolete. “Today, it’s not so much about what you know, but how fast you learn,” Snell says.

“The leader as learner” has become a byword in many aspects of executive education, Snell says. He emphasizes that learning doesn’t occur just in the classroom.

Snell cited a familiar axiom that 70 percent of learning occurs on the job, 20 percent comes from learning from others and only 10 percent occurs in a classroom setting.

To broaden their instruction outside the classroom, Darden professors often employ experiential learning techniques such as visiting a famous battlefield like Gettysburg or Normandy to give leadership participants a first-hand look at the conditions that historical figures faced during a time of crisis.

Another technique involves a form of “action learning,” in which instructors help participants or teams of participants develop a plan and then send them back to work to implement it, with follow-up coaching to reflect on what has been accomplished.

“It’s more about learning in a practical way, not in a theoretical way,” Snell says.

Leadership or crisis?
William Judge, professor of strategic leadership at the Strome College of Business at Old Dominion University, says learning through experience is critical to the development of leaders, especially in an environment in which they constantly have to adapt to change.

“There are two ways that organizations change,” Judge says. “One is through leadership, and the other is through a crisis. Unfortunately, most organizations change due to crisis.”

Enlightened and informed leadership sometimes can avert a crisis or mitigate its effects by anticipating or responding appropriately to changes as they arise, Judge suggests.

The rise and fall of organizations often depends on a leader’s strategy, but following through on a strategy is just as important as the big ideas, Judge says. “Executives tell me that they spend 10 percent of their time deciding on a strategy and 90 percent implementing that strategy. A strategy can be brilliant, but if poorly executed it’s a failure,” he says.

To help leaders or aspiring leaders test their ability to respond to change and forge effective strategies, Judge developed simulations marketed through Harvard Business Publishing. These simulations involve game-playing that place participants in a variety of circumstances in which they must lead change.

As they play the game, they also are put into different roles in an organization.

In the hardest simulation, Judge says, only 40 percent of participants are typically successful, meaning they have more work to do, more to learn and more experience to gain before they can move on.

Roy Hinton, associate dean of executive programs at George Mason University’s School of Business, says one of the expanding areas in leadership training is the study of personal practices — helping leaders gain a better idea of how they view the world and how colleagues view them.

This field of study dovetails, Hinton says, with the higher value that companies put on relationship building. He says many manufacturing and industry managers have warmed to relationship building — not for “touchy, feely” reasons — but for the practical ones.  “They see the benefits of an engaged team,” Hinton says.

He points to a recent Fortune magazine article about the nation’s best companies. It emphasizes that, more than ever, corporations are looking at workplace culture as a competitive tool.

Today’s leaders, Hinton says, have to listen to people’s concerns. “Millennials have much higher expectations around relationships, and they’re concerned about the purpose and mission of organizations,” he explains.

Recession’s lessons
Steve Terrell, an independent leadership and executive consultant in Chesapeake, says challenging experiences help shape the judgment of leaders. The recession, he says, revealed the critical importance of good leadership, especially when things aren’t going well.

Terrell helps companies determine where they have leadership gaps, and some of those gaps are in the line of succession. “A lot of organizations are not finding the right kinds of people coming up the pipeline,” he says.

To help with that problem, employees’ capabilities must be measured early on, with an eye toward giving them the time and training to develop into able candidates for leadership.

Paul Wilson, head of the federal practice of the San Diego-based Ken Blanchard Cos., a leadership training firm, works in the Washington, D.C., area with government agencies.  “You want to develop an environment where it’s okay to ask questions,” Wilson says.

One of the biggest problems facing the federal government, Wilson says, is replacing a cadre of leadership that is retiring. To do that, he says, training and communication practices must keep pace with the digital culture of the millennials. They rely on mobile devices to get their information and embrace gaming as a learning tool. “Old training modalities are a waste of time and money with a new generation,” Wilson says.

Surveys indicate that millennials prefer to work in teams rather than as individuals, and Wilson says that emerging leaders must be able to coordinate teams to succeed. He says these leaders will draw information from team members in making decisions.

You might need a heroic leader for a specific task as in the military, he says, but overall leadership will be much more about collaborating than charging ahead.

One of the problems in helping develop leaders, Wilson says, is that organizations sometimes will underfund the process by not providing enough money for coaching and tracking an individual’s progress long-term. “Our best practice is to meet and work with them [over time],” he says.

More than creativity
A 2009 IBM study of more than 1,500 chief executive officers found that CEOs named creativity as the most important skill for future leaders.

But the Darden School’s Snell views creativity as just one part of a larger model of innovation and transformation.

For example, when a leader declares that people need to “think out of the box,” Snell immediately thinks: “What is the box?”

For the individual, it may be his or her assumptions around a particular issue. At the group level, it might mean focusing on what biases people might have about one another.

Uncovering those assumptions and biases, Snell says, is important in understanding how individuals and organizations view the world.

And that, he suggests, helps drive a decision-making process with better outcomes.

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