Wanted: sherpas to guide business leaders to new heights
Leaders need sure-footed training that develops intuition and emotional intelligence
“Enrol faculty who act less as experts and more as sherpas.” Edmund Hillary Col John Hunt and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay take a last look at Mount Everest before leaving Katmandu in 1953. Photograph: AP/Photo
Too many business leaders today are out of touch with the employees they lead. Part of the problem: our primary method of developing leaders is antithetical to the type of leadership we need.
The vast majority of leadership programmes are set curriculums delivered through classroom-taught, rationally based, individually focused methods. Participants are taken out of their day-to-day workplaces to be inspired by expert faculty, work on case studies, receive personal feedback and take away the latest leadership thinking (and badges for their résumés).
Yet study after study tells us the qualities that leaders in today’s world need are intuitive, dynamic, collaborative and grounded in here-and-now emotional intelligence.
The mismatch between leadership development as it exists and what leaders actually need is enormous and widening. What would work better?
There are four factors that lie at the heart of good, practical leadership development.
Make it experiential: neuroscience shows us that we learn most when the emotional circuits within our brain are activated. So throw out preplanned teaching schedules, content, lectures and exercises that ask you to think about your world and how you need to lead it.
In their place, switch to constructing self-directed experiences for participants that replicate the precise contexts they need to lead in, such as business simulations or unstructured dialogues.
Influence participants’ “being,” not just their “doing”: The learning experience needs to offer stillness and space for intentional contemplation. Experiences such as mindfully walking outdoors in nature, sitting silently in peer groups to hear colleagues share their life stories or completing contemplative tasks enable leaders to tap into their inner world as a powerful source of purpose, self-awareness, empathy and acute attentional discipline.
Place development into its wider, systemic context: too often, leaders attend courses that promulgate certain mindsets and ways of working only to go back to the workplace and find that the office is still stuck in old routines. Instead, try to use the lived leadership development experience as an opportunity to tune into and shift that very system, because they are intimately connected.
Enrol faculty who act less as experts and more as sherpas: ideally you will assemble a faculty group who can work skilfully with live group dynamics, creating psychological safety in the room for participants to take personal risks and push cultural boundaries. You need the educational equivalent of sherpas, people able to carry part of the load in order to guide participants toward their personal and organisational summits.
Make no mistake: attending to all four of these factors is a sizable challenge. Whatever your leadership development programme is, take a long, hard look at how you are currently delivering it. The price of failed leadership is already too high for us not to attend to the process through which we develop it. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016
Deborah Rowland has led change in major global organisations including Shell, Gucci Group, BBC Worldwide and PepsiCo