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!