Monday, December 19, 2005

Defining Leadership Skills: From the Classroom to the Boardroom

Over dinner, a friend (let's call him Ulysses) told me about a leadership elective he was teaching this semester to kids at a prep school.

Ulysses has maintained two careers in tandem. With a PhD from an Ivy League university, he teaches classical languages and literature while keeping a firm hand in high finance and philanthropy. He has very strong feelings about the qualities of leadership across contexts.

"The leadership elective is useless," Ulysses said. "It doesn't make sense. Leadership is not something you can recite or learn in the abstract."

After some thought, we decided leadership qualities in school and work combine charisma, expertise in an industry or subject, the ability to persuade, and confidence.

Confidence is particularly useful for some other necessary skills for leadership: the willingness to engage in meaningful conversation, to admit to being wrong, to learning what needs to change, and to make decisions even in the face of the unknown.

These are all disciplines very closely related to creativity in business. Instinct doesn't hurt either.

And So, In Short . . .

The necessary qualities for leadership must to be learned over time, outside the classroom as well as inside. Otherwise, "it's like an acting exercise," he said. You can look like a leader for an hour, but it won't work in off-stage.

My prestigious friend concluded that in order to integrate the work in different disciplines that combines to form leadership talent, both kids and adults need practice in different situations and to see what happens. Optimal results derive from integrating as many kinds of awareness and skill sets as possible.

But Wait, There's (Always) More

Another friend called Heather, a student and scholar of leadership and change, adds a provocative twist. After a careful study of the history and current divergent theories of business leadership, she concluded that the current climate is very much like the story in which a group of blind men mistook the parts of an elephant for the whole.

Where Myth and Management Meet

The story goes something like this: A group of blind men, all at different ends of an elephant, put their hands on the beast and declared definitively that an elephant is whatever they happened to touch.

One put his hand on the back and defined an elephant to be flat, dry, and wrinkly. Another touched the trunk and objected with great force that an elephant is long and tubular. A third stroked the leg, denied the first two claims, and definitively declared an elephant to be like a tree trunk. You get the point.

It's a remarkably astute observation on theory in general, and business leadership theory in particular. Pick a piece of the beast, and you'll find a different set of challenges and come up with a different set of solutions.

Heather has spent most of her life as a professional storyteller. Just another example of the ways in which crossing disciplines generates perspectives those too close to the elephant often miss.

For More On Thinking and Learning Generally

For related information on multiple intelligences vis a vis the discussion with Ulysses, see Howard Gardner's refelections on learning styles and capabilities. Howard Gardner is one of my heroes -- a neurologist by training who also studies the arts, corporate practice, and education.

As Frank McCourt has recently said in a talk at New York's 92nd Street Y, teachers themselves are never awarded the kind of prestige of any other profession. As McCourt points out, every TV panel on education contains a superintendant, a politician, and a professor of education but never someone who actually works in a classroom.

Howard Gardner has articulated for many educators’ ideas that no one would have heard otherwise. Of course, not to sell Gardner short, he also brings the perspective of a brilliant neuroscientist and scholar. Very useful for both credibility and making new connections.

All Kinds of Minds is an organization that provides resources for parents and teachers that works from Gardners' ideas, and is worth checking out as well.

For The Part the Elephant You Find in the Boardroom . . .

For another perspective on potential for thinking about business leadership in new ways, see Tom Harrison's book Instinct.

A biologist by training, Harrison talks about entrepreneurial DNA -- a useful metaphor for the potential to develop a collection of disciplines for effective leadership and innovation.

There's a lot of clearly articulated insight in Harrison's book, particularly in the way he offers new connections among old chestnuts.

My one caveat for Instinct: I am not big on quizzes because once there is an external standards, one tends to teach to (and learn for) the test. Exams tend to put one back into a passive way of thinking and to frame your thinking according to someone else's criteria.

If you take Harrison's tests, first make one up of yourself. Or use his as just the first in a series of new perspectives. What do YOU think makes a great entrepreneur and leader? What have you got that fits the bill? What have you got to learn? Where can you learn it?

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