Neither Frogs, Nor Princes: Changing Models of Leadership in Academia

This paper “Neither Frogs, Nor Princes: Changing Models of Leadership in Academia” was presented at the Australian Association of Researchers in Education Conference by Dr. Patricia Klinck and Ms Andrea Allard, Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Institute of Education, at the University of Melbourne at Newcastle, NSW in 1994.

This paper reports on a pilot program run for male academic staff University of Melbourne which aimed to enable men to explore their understandings of gender, power and models of leadership. The program, reported on in this paper, was an initial attempt to discuss with male academics their understandings concerning gender, the ways in which power is exercised by them as teachers and as administrators, and to consider alternative leadership models, including those based on collegiality and collaboration.

The program was organised on the model of a collegial support group which has been successful in leadership training in the US and Canada as well as in Australia. One of the aims of this pilot project was to investigate how male-only groups responded to such a model. The pilot study met with mixed results and some surprising observations and insights for the two (female) facilitators. In this paper, we outline the program, discuss the barriers to change that emerged and reflect on changes needed in order to better address the issues.

Remember for a moment the fairy tale in which the beautiful princess leans over and kisses the ugly frog. Due to the devotion and concern offered freely by such a kind and loving princess, the object of her affection, the ugly frog, is released from the evil spell and magically turns into a handsome prince. The ability of the princess to transform ugliness and limitations into a thing of beauty, indeed the transformative nature of love itself, is to be celebrated. On the other hand, the squat ugly frog can wait to be loved, hoped to be transformed, but cannot (does not) bring about the needed transformation, cannot (does not) address the possibilities of change in any real way for himself.

“Neither Frogs, Nor Princes”, for us is a humourous evocation of our experiences of planning and implementing a male only pilot program on gender, power and models of leadership. The program was offered at the University of Melbourne and coordinated through the Equal Opportunity Office of the University. We came to the decision to offer this pilot program for a number of reasons.

First of all, it seemed to us that the Affirmative Action Program for Women has resulted in a number of initiatives to encourage and support women to succeed in academia. Underpinning these initiatives, however, is the often unexamined assumption that it is women who need to change in order to achieve ‘success’, to fit into academia. As Carol Bacchi (1993: 39) points out: “the existence of formal equal opportunity rules serves…(to) convince many, particularly those who themselves do not face discrimination, that all that needs to be done is being done….” She goes on to argue that there is a need to: …contest and resignify the interpretations and conceptualizations which surround these (equal opportunity) laws. The kind of resignification which is needed emerges from the analysis…which illustrates that existing understandings disguise the operation of power in social relations….Ways must be found to draw attention to that factor. One way may be to shift the focus from the recipients of ‘assistance’, the targets of ‘equal opportunity’, to the beneficiaries. We were interested in ‘shifting the focus’ and wanted to consider ways in which the ‘beneficiaries’ of power in social relations, those males who hold powerful positions in academia, might be challenged to see the need to examine, and perhaps begin to change, the masculinist culture of the workplace.

Other recent work which has explored the ‘masculinist culture’, in particular that of Blackmore (1993) informed our thinking. Blackmore notes that in her study of an educational bureaucracy, the participants: …spoke of how embedded in this particular bureaucratic culture were norms of behaviour, models of good management and images of leadership which excluded most women because of their close association with so-called masculine attributes, behaviours and images. These norms emphasised a particular form of bureaucratic rationality and logic of procedures characterised by unemotional arguments and an apparent capacity to make the ‘hard’ decision. Language, symbols, rituals and myths perpetuated this hegemonic masculinity which defined insiders and outsiders.” (80). This description did not seem dissimilar to the academic culture and the ideals of academic leadership experienced by many women. Blackmore also goes on to argue the need for feminists to ‘problematise masculinity’ and suggests the need to ‘focus on similarities and not differences by forming a dialogue across differences’. (p. 88) The need for a collaborative approach to establish an environment where feminists and pro-feminist men are able to speak as equals seemed to us to be an important way forward. Inspired by some recent research and writings in the areas of gender, (eg., Weedon, 1987; Connell, 1987; Davies, 1989; Mac an Ghaill, 1994), educational leadership (eg., Herr Van Nostrand, 1993; Luke and Gore, 1992) and through our own knowledge and experience of current educational initiatives in the area of women and leadership (eg., Klinck, 1994; Shakeshaft, 1989), we decided to work collaboratively to develop a pilot program.

Models of Leadership, Power and Gender was a three session program which aimed to make explicit the often taken-for-granted assumptions concerning being a male academic with leadership responsibilities. For planning purposes, we started from the following premises:

  • Traditional and current models of leadership are patriarchal and based on hierarchical structures.
  • Emerging leadership envisages ways to transform the context in order to identify, acknowledge and value those who are excluded, eg., women.
  • Gender’ is a cultural/social construct; beliefs about ‘appropriate’ masculine, feminine behaviours are learned, can be changed, challenged and resisted, over time and in different contexts.
  • Understandings of masculinities, femininities are negotiated, challenged, resisted, re-constructed, endorsed on an individual and collective basis. Change is possible and necessary.
  • Leadership ability can be honed through education, experience and reflection.
  • Naming the issues is a prerequisite to action.
  • Organisational change is based on a shared vision of how the world can be better and relies upon courageous, collaborative action on the part of leaders.
  • Teaching, as well as administration, is a leadership activity which needs to be supported by ‘positional’ leadership while the hierarchy continues to operate.
  • The Program and the Process
    The purpose of the program was to provide participants with opportunities to develop a better understanding of how effective leaders work to recognise and enhance diverse perspectives within the university context. As noted above, we defined the term ‘leader’ as both teacher and administrator and endeavoured to move the definition beyond the traditional and masculinist understanding. The program was organised into a series of three late afternoon seminars of two and one half hours each. In order to do justice to the complexity of the issues, we chose to offer these seminars, not as one-offs, but as a sequential program. All male academics were invited to participate through a notice that was sent through the Equal Opportunity Unit. The notice went to approximately 1200 male staff initially and was readvertised later to male academics in administrative positions. While the program created a great deal of interest among female academics, the enrolment of male academics was extremely low: eg., for the first session, only eight males signed up.

    However, despite this low number, we decided to go ahead with the program as we viewed it as a pilot project. For the first session, however, only five of the potential eight participants came. Of these, a senior administrator arrived announcing he could only stay for one hour; a second senior administrator arrived, announcing he could only come to the first session. Thus in the second session only three of the original participants returned. A new participant also arrived but could only stay for an hour. For the final seminar, only one participant came although we did receive apologies from the other two, one who became ill and one because he was attending a department meeting.

    In preparation for the first session, we sent out pre-reading. We chose the article by Magda Lewis and Roger Simon, ‘A Discourse Not Intended for Her: Learning and Teaching Within the Patriarchy’. This article is written from a dual perspective, that of a female graduate student and a male professor. The article demonstrates the role of dominant discourse, gender and power in academic classrooms. In the first session, we aimed to focused specifically on the relationship between teaching as a leadership activity, and the ways in which power relations and understandings concerning gender influenced the processes of leadership.

    To inform the discussion for the second seminar, the participants were asked to complete a task. During the week, they were asked to observe one formal (eg., a committee meeting) and one informal (eg., family dinner) situation in order to analyse the group dynamics. They were asked to consider the relationships in both situations, in terms of gender, power and leadership and to note their observations for the next session. Additionally, an excerpt from Blackmore’s (1993) “Towards a ‘postmasculinist’ institutional politics’?” was distributed for reading. The second session focused on the interrelationship between models of leadership, language and culture. During this session, there was time to report back on the task and to discuss the reading. In response to queries raised in session one, data on the status and number of women academics at the University of Melbourne was also distributed for discussion.

    As a task for the following week, we asked the participants to examine and reflect upon the strategies which they used to establish and promote inclusive participation within their individual academic contexts. They were also asked to identify factors, which work for and against change in their own context. Our third and final session aimed to bring together strategies, set an agenda for change and provide ongoing networking for the group. We proposed to review the leadership model used at Edith Cowan University. This model was central to the ‘Women in Leadership Program’ and has been used successfully for both women-only and mixed groups of academics and general staff. At the close of the final session, an excerpt from Catherine Herr van Nostrand’s book Gender Responsible Leadership was provided as a means of highlighting a few of the strategies possible for change. We also distributed an evaluation which reinterated the purposes of the program. It was mailed to all who had attended.

    The above was the outline of the intended program. What follows is a description of what we experienced as the program unfolded.

    In the phases of program planning we discussed and deliberated on the processes and the readings to be used. The program components looked well integrated and we anticipated a challenging but focused discussion.

    However, from the start of the initial session, the male participants appeared to us to be jockeying for position; power was being negotiated. The negotiation established a pecking order. Talk became ordered, with some of the males appearing to have more rights than others to challenge and to offer opinions and to talk at length. In the case of one exchange, power was conferred on a participant by the most senior academic present, who singled him out from the group with a compliment. The compliment recognised and lauded his (informal) power to influence the outcomes of meetings. Despite our continual attempts to refocus the group on the intended program, for the first 45 minutes, it was a struggle over who had control, and until the senior administrator left, we didn’t.

    When he left, we regrouped, became more focused and brought forward the article for discussion. There was no agreement on the relevance of the article. Some felt it was dated. Others felt that in their faculty, gender was not a problem because they dealt with ‘the top one per cent of the student population’. Others felt that they too had experienced marginalisation just as the female graduate student had in the article. In short, from their perspective, we were dealing with a non-issue.

    Shortly before the end of the first session, one of the participants asked, ‘Do you find this discussion intimidating?’ We have debated why this question was asked and each of us has a different perspective. However, his question took us both by surprise and also enabled us to respond explicitly that we found the discussion both hopeful and encouraging. This gave us the opportunity to ask the fundamental question: why were we as a group, unable to discuss the topic of gender? In our opinion for the first two hours of the session, it had been deftly side stepped. The stunned silence on the part of the participants was followed by a more honest discussion and the first session ended on a positive note.

    In our debriefing after session one, we recognised that much of the power available in an academic teaching institution is based on ‘expert’ knowledge. The claim to ‘right’ answers is central to academia and is exemplified through the use of the lecture as a common mode of information delivery. One of the initial challenges thrown at us by a participant during the first session was to ‘define leadership’. In our role as facilitators, and in keeping with our commitment to collaborative learning, we had assumed that the group would be in charge of defining the key terms in their own words. We deferred to the group’s participation in meaningful dialogue. We did not meet the challenge as one would (should?) in a lecture. In short, we did not follow the rules of the academic game. In hindsight, we perceived that this left us in a less powerful position. We refused to give the ‘right’ answer, preferring to negotiate understandings that would reflect all participants’ perspectives. Seemingly this was not an acceptable strategy, certainly not one that the participants were prepared to enter into.

    Thus, in session two, we decided to address participation at the beginning of the session. We designed a process to give time for each participant to speak from a personal perspective. By naming and claiming issues in personal and professional experiences, the ways in which gender and power relations are constituted became clearer to the participants. Taken away from the abstractions of academic talk, they spoke as fathers, as partners, and as colleagues who walked along side their female colleagues, conscious of the women’s anger and the injustices, conscious of what the future might hold for their own daughters and partners. They understood the problem as a lived daily experience. They expressed urgency about the change needed and the challenge it presented. From our perspective, urgency, challenge and a desire for better working relationships are a mandate to lead, to bring change.

    We became aware that this urgency and challenge was not translated into action. As administrators the participants did not see themselves as agents of change nor in need of change. Their view was that, sympathetic and supportive though they were, the change was ‘out there’ somewhere, to be done by and/or for women. From their comments, it appeared that the power to change seemed to reside either higher up in the academic hierarchy or in women themselves. Equally as teachers, the participants, during the second session, did not seem to make the connection between how their pedagogical practices could change the culture of the university to empower women. This discussion evolved out of the two readings they had done concerning teaching as a leadership endeavour and the masculinist culture of academia.

    For example, one participant discussed how he organised his students into small groups for research projects as well as classroom learning, as a more inclusive practice. He expressed surprise at the diversity of strengths and experiences which students brought to projects and how this improved the quality. Yet, in spite of an extensive discussion, this participant seemed unable to make the connection between how such a change strategy in the learning context could also be used to produce change in the organisational context. For example, collaborative learning affirms the personal knowledge as a basis for acquiring new knowledge. As a pedagogy, it sets up a new environment where learners are empowered. Rather than the ‘expert’ professor and the ‘deficient’ student who is required to listen and to reproduce the ‘right’ answers, collaborative learning builds on the strengths and experiences of all who are involved. The culture of an organisation reflects the underlying values and assumptions of the legitimated (privileged) pedagogy. Thus to change the pedagogy is to change the culture of the organisation.

    Yet, despite the fact that the participants did not see the connections between teaching, leadership and gender, the topics of the program carried beyond the seminars. One participant told how he had spent an entire dinner party discussing the issues of gender and power with his guests. While for many, this may not seem remarkable; he presented the discussion as unique and unusual. In the third session, one of the men discussed strategies which he had trialed and how they failed. For example, he recounted his stand to encourage female students to enrol in a mathematics program and the lengths taken to ensure that female professors were hired as well. He lamented that this initiative had not been successful because the few women whom he had managed to employ were unable to take the jeers and the exclusion of their male colleagues. His support for employing the women seemed to him sufficient. He did not see any need in his administrative role to influence the culture of the department which remained traditionally masculinist. Our frustration rose as we listened to what we perceived to be a lack of commitment and follow through and to the sound of disenchantment in the voice of the participant. We offered follow through strategies and the perspective which we felt the women may have experienced. He professed the desire to try again and to enlist the help of others.

    After the three sessions were completed, the three participants were asked to complete an evaluation consisting of open ended statements. In their evaluations, they expressed their pleasure at having the opportunity to discuss these issues with other male colleagues. They stated that the discussions had given them a greater focus on the issues and a better understanding. One commented that he had found the opportunity to ‘hear from women’ particularly enjoyable. All commented on being disappointed by how few male colleagues had chosen to participate. Although they acknowledged that ours was a ‘courageous endeavour’, one thought that a team of facilitators – a man and woman – would enhance the program.

    Reflections on the Pilot Program, Models of Leadership, Gender and Power
    During the program and in the ensuing weeks we have discussed our impressions and reactions to this program. What worked? What would we do differently if we did it again? Would we do it again? We have also reviewed the evaluation comments of the participants to ascertain how much impact the initiative had from their perspective. From our perspective, the pilot project had its successes. We learned a lot about power and leadership. We took a risk, broke a norm and set a precedent. As academics and professionals we often talk about the need for a change in the cultural context of organisations. Various professional development activities aim to make change in the working relationships between men and women; others, as already mentioned, aim to change women’s knowledge and skill levels for career promotion. To our knowledge, none have directly approached men to make problematic gender, power and their assumptions concerning leadership. Nor have any addressed the need male leaders might have to talk to other men about strategies used to include women fully as equals, as colleagues.

    Reflecting on the readings which we chose for their relevance to the university context we were surprised that they proved foreign to the participants. They found them a ‘hard read’ and could not make connections with their work. They expressed no desire for further readings which they might pursue on their own time. This silence made us aware of gaps in our planning. First, we had not anticipated the extent to which the literature on gender issues was unknown. We had assumed a higher level of awareness and knowledge on the part of these academics than was evident. Second, over the course of two sessions, it became clear that their interest in the aim of the seminar was one of ‘benign curiosity’ rather than an urgent need to pursue topics, concerns and leadership strategies. From our perspective, we saw that the privilege of entitlement to a position within the hierarchy of power protects them from the experience of marginalisation and therefore of the need to understand it as Bacchi, (1993) suggests. While at least one of them recognised his less powerful position in the hierarchy, nevertheless he was still part of it. As male academics they were privileged through the dominant discourses in operation. Because they were already there, they found it hard to see what it looked like from an outside perspective.

    At different times in the pilot we were acutely aware of our deficits: both of us were in academic positions of no great importance in the hierarchy of the University; both of us could be seen as ‘outsiders’ since we both spoke with North American accents, (although Andrea had been in Australia for over twenty years and Pat for two); both of us had prior knowledge of marginalisation which made us feel vulnerable, and perhaps overly cautious. We vacillated between confidence in our approach, certainty that our risk was worthy and deep concern about how the participants viewed the endeavour and how they were progressing. Would we do it again? We have often debated that question. Over time we have come to the conclusion that we would but we would make strategic changes. We remain committed to our belief that there is a need to take action, to problematise the issues of gender and power in the leadership of men – from a male perspective. We would have more confidence in the relevance of our assumptions (see above) and would make them explicit far earlier. We are also more aware now of the challenges such assumptions present for facilitator and participants alike. These challenges are not new nor are they hidden. However, it is worthwhile to indicate them here.

    First, a facilitated group is not the norm at the university. Experiences with and expectations for the experiential learning model (on which facilitated groups are established) need to be surfaced in the first session – and made explicit in following sessions. This shift in emphasis would change the outcomes of the program. Explicit reflection on their experiences within the group could potentially assist the participants in several ways. It could give them the opportunity to understand the relationship between power and organisational context. Understanding how to empower others, that is, to set the conditions which enable others to take control of their actions too would drive home the link between their experiences and the mandate of leadership in the university community. It would assist them as well to see the connection between a change in their teaching and therefore the learning of their students. Regarding the issues of power: we need to explore participants’ own sense of agency, authority based on their positions and on the ways in which the ‘gender regime’ operates (Connell, 1987). We, as facilitators and feminists, need to be much more explicit and assertive about the gains that male academics already have within the university. Additionally, we need to recognise more openly the challenge they will experience when endeavouring to explore this issue. As facilitators, we also need to develop practical knowledge of how to deal with resistance. We need to move away from seeing this as ‘a lack’ in our own facilitating skills but instead as something to be expected and dealt with as part of the learning process. Finally, on reflection we learned that risk taking needs to continue throughout the sessions–not just as a starting point for setting them up. If we were to do this again, we would insist on using our personal power. For example, we would not let go of it so easily when the males started jockeying amongst themselves for position. This again was perhaps a measure of our own lack of confidence and sense of vulnerability, a not uncommon experience, we believe, of many women in academia.

    We would want to work closely with a male colleague/facilitator as per our initial planning. The team approach would allow for close process observation and also for divergent perspectives both within the discussions and in the debriefing.

    To return to our title: Neither Frogs nor Princes seems to summarise our understandings about the experience of planning and implementing this pilot project. The male academics who participated were certainly not ‘ugly frogs’. They came because they had personal knowledge, based on their relationships as husband, father, colleague, of the difficulties and discrimination experienced by women working within patriarchal social systems. They came with the best of intentions and with a willingness to consider the issues. For the most part, they seemed to care genuinely and wanted to understand. We enjoyed our interactions with them.

    However, in our opinion, participation in this project was not sufficient to develop the necessary understandings or commitment to begin the process of changing the culture in which they are privileged. Nor did it provide them with a sense of agency to transform their own leadership practices into more inclusive and collaborative ones. From our perspective, we saw little evidence that they were able to challenge the masculinist culture in which they were located. For us, in many ways, we learned, and relearned how difficult it is to challenge hegemonic discourses of leadership, power and gender. Clearly, much work remains to be done.

    Bacchi, C., ‘The Brick Wall: Why so few women become senior academics’ The Australian Universities Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, 1993.

    Blackmore, J.H., 1993. Towards a ‘postmasculinist institutional politics’? in Baker, D. & Fogaty, M. [eds], A Gendered Culture: educational management in the nineties. Melbourne: Victoria University of Technology.

    Connell, R.W., 1987. Gender and Power. Sydney: Allen and Unwin. Davies, B., ‘Education for sexism: A theoretical analysis of the sex/gender bias in education.’ Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1989 (21) 1-19.

    Herr Van Nostrand, C., 1993. Gender Responsible Leadership. Detecting Bias, Implementing Interventions. Newbury Park (California): Sage Publications.

    Klinck, P. , ‘Women, Language and Leadership’ EQ Australia, Spring, No. 3, 1994: 10-13.

    Lewis, M. 1992. ‘Interrupting Patriarchy: Politics, Resistance and Transformation in the Feminist Classroom’ in Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy: London: Routledge.

    Lewis, M. and Simon, R., ‘A Discourse Not Intended for Her: Learning and Teaching Within the Patriarchy. Harvard Educational Review, 56, (4), 457-472. 1986

    Luke, C. and Gore, J., 1992. ‘Women in the Academy: Strategy, Struggle, Survival’ in Luke, C. & Gore, J. [eds] Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. London: Routledge.

    Mac an Ghaill, M., 1994 The making of men: masuclinities, sexualities and schooling. Open University Press: Buckingham.

    Shakeshaft, C., 1989. Women in Educational Administration. Newbury Park (California): Sage Publications.

    Weedon, C., 1987. Feminist Practice and Post Structuralist Theory. U.K.: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

KeyLinks Newsletter – Autumn 2010

Please feel free to share my blog with friends and colleagues – and to write to me with your thoughts and challenges.

It is an early autumn, rainy, moody and full of colors! For those of us who are born in November this is our season – regardless of when it starts. From long habit this is my month to go to Australia. I arrive in Melbourne on September 18 and hope to see many dear fiends there.

I will be working on leadership with group women academics from the University of Melbourne. In preparation for my time there, I have reviewed leadership and its many perspectives. For your interest included are two short articles in which I explore some of the ways that leadership grows and can be recognized:

Learning About Leadership – The Extraordinary Experiences

Learning About Leadership – The Everyday Experiences

Although I have taken the term ‘destiny’ out of the title of this page, it remains in my thoughts. When I was told in April that I had breast cancer. I was taken aback and couldn’t make sense out of the news. The results of tests and biopsies proved the diagnosis – operation and radiation have confirmed that I am among the fortunate who have no trace of cancer left in my body. It has been a steep learning curve about how I am willing to deny, bargain and finally accept reality. As a coach I will practice my profession with greater understanding and compassion.

I have included the second chapter of my Camino writings and hope that you continue to enjoy them. I owe so much to Barbara Turner-Vesselago for her support, the challenges she has given me and her insight into my writing. Without her inspiration and encouragement I wouldn’t be where I am now – and that is within two chapters of finishing!

New Coaching Video

Please also view this explanation of my personal approach to coaching:

Learning About Leadership – The Extra-Ordinary Experiences

In the last issue I examined some of the ‘everyday’ experiences that teach us about leadership. Today I will explore ‘extra- ordinary’ approaches to learning about leadership. Innovative thinkers seek out extra-ordinary and relevant ways to explore leadership. I have chosen: equine-assisted learning, poetry and the visual arts.

Natural Leader
Have you ever watched someone come through a crowded room? Noticed how the talk grows quiet? How the crowd moves apart to let the person through? Although there appears to be nothing unusual about her, you’ve thought to yourself “Now there goes a leader”! Leaders have a presence that commands attention. This presence is also true in the animal world, particularly for horses. Horses live in a world where leadership is negotiated from the strongest to the weakest. Although the challenge can involve physical contact, often it is directed through a look, a movement that stops short of contact, a threat, or a stare. I have worked with horses for some time now – in particular my paint horse, Indio. This work has developed in me, an awareness of the unique learning opportunities presented by horses.

For many, working with horses is a new experience. For some it is a return to a childhood love, or a new dimension of dealing with leadership. Regardless, the learning environment is charged with relevance.

Horses are motivated by the fact that they are prey animals. They need, and some even long for, leaders to keep them safe from predators. However if the leader doesn’t take on the responsibilities, the horses will live and react in the moment. Speed and flight are their strategies. To work in this environment means that the leader must understand their mentality, must create meaning and provide support and security. When the rider hasn’t established her leadership role, they take charge of their world – i.e. speed and flight.

In these workshops, participants learn to develop a meaningful relationship and construct an environment of trust and cooperation.

Touching The Heart And Imagination
Artists rely on their ability to challenge our understanding of everyday reality. They put metaphors, sensuous details, rhythm and beauty in front of us and ask us to make sense of a new view of our world. Like artists, leaders inspire by using the power of language and images to create their world view. However, much of the writing on leadership is based on two areas of focus: the military and religion. They shape our images, words and metaphors. For example, we talk about strategic planning, about vision and mission. Although our references to military and religious worlds are not made consciously, they create a context for thinking and feeling about leadership.

David Whyte (1994) was one of the first writers to link poetry and leadership. He found that it touched the heart and the imagination in powerful ways. Why not seek out your favourite work of art – poetry, visual arts, music – and have it with you as a constant reminder that leadership and the arts are interwoven.
As we are considering other ways of exploring leadership and worldviews, Palmer is worthy of notice. He encourages us to think from another perspective:

“Spirituality is not primarily about values and ethics, not about exhortation to do right or live well. The spiritual traditions are primarily about reality. [They] are an effort to penetrate the illusions of the external world and to name its underlying truth, what it is, how it emerges, and how we relate to it.” (Palmer 1983)

So let me leave you with this question: what has spirituality got to do with leadership – if anything?

The Cycle Of Issues
Issues and trends follow cycles. In the beginning, they take up a lot of space by focusing our attention and shaping our learning. Key ideas don’t disappear entirely, but do experience cycles where their profile is lower. At the moment, there are several significant ideas that are returning front and center.
First, women in leadership programs are experiencing revitalization. It is apparent that although a lot has changed, women are still not visible enough at the upper levels of organizations.

Second, mentoring first appeared in the writings of Homer around 800 BC. In the Iliad, Ulysses asked Mentor to guide his son Telemachus during his absence, to make sure that he had experiences fitting to the son of a great king.

In 1978, Daniel Levinson published “The Season’s of a Man’s Life”. For the next decade mentoring became a constant in work done around leadership. It is now twenty years later and there is a resurgence of mentoring as a key aspect of leadership in both Canada and Australia.

Learning About Leadership – The Everyday Experience

It is common practice to read books about leadership, biographies of leaders and to take courses, seminars and presentations. Today I would like to consider some of the ‘home grown’ aspects of leadership: adventures, work based learning environments and conversations. These three deal with the lived experience and provide a reality check for exploring leadership components in theory. They form a significant part of what, how and where we learn about leading.

When we embark on an adventure – however we define it – we leave our taken-for-granted world. In the context of the adventure, we face the challenge of making sense out of who we are, what we do and what we value. The time frame is often compacted and so our learning is intense. Sometimes we gain new insights, often we re-learn old lessons. Much like the heroes of old, the adventure is the beginning of a quest – into new places and new ways of being.

My adventure happened this September when I went on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, a pilgrimage walk of 800 km across northern Spain. Like all of our adventures, the context has many layers. The Camino is couched in history from the early Celts who walked to the western most tip of Europe to the Christians who made pilgrimages to the tomb of St. James the Apostle. So given its long history and its present day following, I ask myself ‘what were they seeking? why are we doing the pilgrimage now? What is it we are seeking’? What became obvious is that we don’t really know why it beckons. The ‘why’, the sense of purpose, grows with time and effort. It reminds me of the purpose story which leaders tell – a story which reaches back into the past and our sense of identity. As I listen to these stories I recognize that they are complex and multiple – told and retold each time with different meaning. And I recognize how unique each of our answers to these questions are.

Even before the quest can be fully identified, some lessons are clear. First, travel light. Consider what you really need. Pare down or add as your priorities become clearer. Have a contingency plan. Second, knowing yourself and others is key. As the quest goes on, there are many challenges to your values, your assumptions and how you live with yourself and others. Knowing how this process empowers you, leads you to accept yourself and others is important. Thirdly, having a vision is key to emotional health. It provides a sense of the bigger picture, it shows us how to focus, to deal with passing events, friendships, life and death. With a vision, it becomes clearer which goals are easily attainable. Clear too where dreams are – and how to hold them in the open palm of your hand. A vision challenges us to examine our assumptions, to live our potential. Finally, decisions are often born in moments of crisis or in moments of extreme difficulty. Those deeply felt decisions grow into commitment and commitment itself gives impetus to new decisions.

Adventures have the power to put us on the age-old path, the quest that is at the heart of leadership.

Why is it that some people have such rich, open conversations? To answer that question is to think about the small moments in talk. Each small moment opens up or closes off the next set of possibilities. And as those moments accumulate, we develop an understanding of what space there is between us and what is open to exploration. Stereotypes, generalizations and judgments color what is available to us.

Quite possibly it is the art of questions that lets us best negotiate the space. To ask a question with little or no pre-judgment as to what will be the right answer is a gift. All too often our questions are offered with the ‘right’ answer in mind – or the anticipation of a certain reply. It is as though we carry on an inner dialogue which precludes the unexpected response. And so without clearing our listening, our conversation has set limits within which to operate.

The leaders who ask compelling, fundamental questions do us a service. This is particularly true when the leaders join us in the search for answers. As the search for answers and space to talk about them goes on, we are freed from our own closed world. I notice that in healthy organizations the amount of talk and the patterns of authentic engagement are fundamentally different. Talk happens between levels, functions and across purpose and strategy. There is less fear of making mistakes or being blamed.

Workplace based learning
As a Visiting Fellow at Edith Cowan University, I had the opportunity to research workplace based learning. For last ten years at British universities have focused on learning in the workplace. One of the assumptions of this initiative is that learning cannot separated from its context. Learning links the individual to the organisation and vice versa. There is mounting pressure from students and employers as well as universities to shift more post graduate degrees in this direction. Its effectiveness is supported by a growing number of research studies and thesis. As this movement becomes better known it will fuel the desire for a learning that ‘works’ at work. So far it is not a focused conversation although the initiative has a lot of energy.

To test the approach, think of your first promotion and what you learned about yourself, the organization and your colleagues. From my experience, it dramatically changed and deepened my understanding and knowledge of the politics of power, values, culture and what a career might look like!