Building Sustainable Legacies


Where are the Super Power Change Makers?

Since reading Katrin’s March blog on the Superpowers of Change Makers, I have been reflecting on leadership and what it looks like in these tense and polarizing times. I have been asking myself the following questions: Who are the heroic leaders for our times? Where are those superpowered change makers who can lift us out of the pessimism and malaise that leave us exhausted and paralyzed? I am eagerly anticipating Katrin’s book for inspiration as I am failing to find many of these superpowered leaders in my world.

Yet when I view this predicament with a different frame, I realize that perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. Instead of speculating on why more leaders don’t demonstrate these change-making skills, perhaps I should be asking myself how I can acquire these capabilities and inspire and enable others to do the same so that we can all make change. Indeed, Katrin pointed out that superpowers are not inborn traits. The “great man” theory of leadership which contends that leaders are born not made has been debunked repeatedly. With effort and courage, every one of us can become a change maker leader.

The quest to develop the superpowers is not for cowards! Most of us are proud of our strengths. Yet Katrin explains how these strengths can limit us when we take them too far. For example, I take pride in my ability to stand up for my convictions and live by my values. Yet taken to the extreme, the strength of my convictions could lead me down the path of close-mindedness and rigidity. To develop superpowers, I must entertain the potential dark side of my strengths. I must be willing and able to refine how I use my strengths to avoid overdoing it to the detriment of my effectiveness.

One of my coaching clients spoke of the “fully baked leader” recently. He seemed to be suggesting that there is an objective and limited set of skills and capabilities that one must acquire to become a leader. Yet in my opinion “fully baked” leaders do not exist. Those who believe that they have developed a complete set of leadership capabilities and have nothing left to learn, will never become superpower- charged change makers. To become effective change makers, we must commit to ongoing growth and development. We must deny that we can ever become “fully baked.”

Some of us who are not in formal positions of authority may be tempted to avoid the difficult path to developing superpowers. Perhaps we tell ourselves that change making is limited to elected officials, CEOs or others who head up organizations and institutions. I urge you to resist this line of thinking. Leadership is far more than filling a position. We cannot afford to fall into a victim mentality. Instead we must acknowledge that leadership does not require a title and refrain from using a lack of one as an excuse for doing nothing.

Leadership does demand bravery and the willingness to take risks. It necessitates our listening to and valuing diverse perspectives. Leadership entails seeking solutions to wicked problems most always through collaboration with others. It obliges us to always seek balance in how we use our strengths. It requires us to continue to seek development and growth. There will always be one more lesson to learn, one more hurdle to overcome and one more challenge to confront with grace and courage.

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Question-based learning

The secret to uncover solutions that leap-frog above and beyond current practices is the ability to ask pertinent questions. Enabling students to ask good questions is the higher purpose of teaching and represents an essential factor of successfully educating leaders to embrace problems we don’t yet know and come up with solutions that don’t yet exist based on technologies that have not yet been invented. An intended side effect of question-based learning is the increase in a student’s ability to hold the tension of not knowing answers and the ability to live with half-truths, partial answers without shying away from courageously taking a step in what appears to be the right direction given what is known at that time. Acting – reflecting – correcting – and acting again will be the future dance of our leaders. It may be called “stumbling forward”[1], a not so elegant yet courageous engagement towards the world.

The key benefit of question-based learning is the development of liberal learning. The 2011 Carnegie Foundation report on undergraduate business education in the United States demands from business education an integration with liberal learning, in order for students to:

a)       Make sense of the world and their place in it,

b)       Prepare students to use knowledge and skills as means toward responsible engagement with the world, and

c)       Instill students a sense of responsibility for the Common Good, guided by commitment & values.

This is achieved by a) analytical thinking, b) multiple framing, c) reflective exploration of meaning, and d) practical reasoning.

Reflection and awareness  in a world becoming more complex, more unpredictable, more challenging, means getting rid of unilateral thinking, conventional ideology, and reductionist vision of the raison d’être of the firm. – Philippe de Woot

Un-covering assumptions that shape the way we look at the world is a critical step to be able to start forming one’s own opinion about what feels right. Another element of this approach is the inherent possibility to render conscious the many currently undeclared assumptions of the oppressing current economic thinking, opening the opportunity to discuss alternative avenues. Some of these assumptions are:

  • Growth and consumerism as the unquestioned answer to economic downturns and crises since the 1960s. Despite that fact that growth has driven us to a state in which we use 1.5 planets to cover our current needs.
  • The contribution of business to society is measured by the return on shareholder equity limiting the purpose of business to maximizing shareholder value,
  • For the longest time, goods of Mother Nature have been free of charge (fish stock, forests, water, commodities, etc.) with capital only being required for the exploitation and often the destruction of these resources. Governments of emerging countries have started to lease or sell entire regions (valleys, glaciers, frost land) to companies to exploit the inherent natural resources that often took millennia to develop.


[1] This term was developed by Katrin Muff in the case study of Business School Lausanne with Prof. Dr. J.B. Kassarjian of Babson College (2008-2010).


Guided reflection

An element dearly missed in traditional field work so far is guided reflection. There is little value in having participants take part in hands-on field work, if their experience is not thoroughly and professionally reflected. Such reflection includes the following:

  • What have I concretely learned in terms of skills and competences?
  • How have I learned, what elements/processes provided insights and how were they provoked?
  • What did I not expect to learn, what took me by surprise?
  • What did I learn in the interaction with others?
  • How effective are my inter-personal skills?
  • What have I learned about myself? Which situations do I find particularly challenging or rewarding?
  • What situations favor a learning attitude, what situations prevent me from learning?
  • What feedback do I get from my colleagues (boss, peers, subordinates) and how do I react to this?
  • What new questions do I have? What would I like to investigate in, learn more about, explore?

Guided reflection is a critical enabler to have a learner advance on his personal journey to mastery. It enables the understanding of where a learner is and what challenges he needs to embrace to advance. It also installs a practice of life-long learning, ensuring that a learner integrates self-reflection into his daily routine as an integral element of personal hygiene. Furthermore, guided reflection also opens the pathway of shared learning, enabling the teacher to understand core issues and challenges a class is faced with. Such a process is a first step towards creating a shared learning journey, involving participants in co-creating a course syllabus and therefore assuming responsibility of his learning.


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Trans-disciplinary learning

The common thread among all of these learning environments is the way a subject is approached and therefore what skills are being developed. The innovative thought lies in fundamentally transforming single discipline teaching into trans-disciplinary learning. Rather than teaching marketing, finance, strategy, human resources separately, students will be looking at finding solutions to existing and emerging environmental, societal and economic challenges. Such dilemmas include water scarcity, pandemics, hunger, migration, social support for the elders, climate change, ocean acidification, CO2 emission control, etc.

This approach is fundamentally different than adding a bit of ethics and sustainability into an existing curriculum. Such approaches merely bolt-on responsible and sustainable considerations to a single discipline foundation; what we need is a full transformation of the curriculum to build-in these notions, turning around education by 180 degrees. As a consequence, subject knowledge is acquired predominantly in the context of a real problem, enabling students to anchor it in real stories.

Trans-disciplinary learning is based on the idea that critical competences such as holistic and divergent thinking, systemic understanding, consideration of multiple perspectives and integral decision-making, are critical for future leaders and need to be trained and developed above and beyond transmitting subject expertise. More explicitly, we believe that teaching disciplinary expertise in isolation may well have been the cause for numerous problems the economic system is currently facing. Developing an understanding for unintended side-effects and consequences in the larger system of any given decision in a specific domain requires fluency with systemic thinking and ability to dismantling complexity.

Rising to the challenge of effectively addressing and resolving global and societal challenges requires an understanding of human and societal developmental stages (i.e. from what perspective do stakeholders look at a problem?) and an ease to navigate between the most diverse fields of expertise (hi-tech, sociology, gen-tech, philosophy, psychology, neuro-science, medicine, architecture, engineering, bio-tech, etc.). Leaders for a sustainable future have learned to work with experts of these fields and are able to build bridges and lead a group of subject experts towards sustainable solutions for the world.

An important element of trans-disciplinary learning is the inclusion of relevant stakeholders in the class discussion and practical field work on global issues. This approach assumes that problems can no longer be resolved by applying single-disciplinary perspective. Such a collaborative approach ensures one of the most critical leadership skills for a sustainable future: fluency and ease in considering and shifting between multiple perspectives.


Issue-centered learning

One of the core pillars of management education for the future is to turn current functional-based, single discipline teaching into issue-centered, trans-disciplinary learning. The development of a question-based, creativity-focused approach that enables critical and divergent thinking is an integral part of this.

Future learning environments will be established both inside a classroom and as collaborative learning platforms for action learning and research (collaboratories) in business and other organizations as well as in communities. The choice among all of these different learning settings depends on what stage a student or participant is in the journey towards mastery. As such different settings are needed for acquire awareness and actionable knowledge than we need for guided practice and independent application.

Embedding business and management education in its larger context is an important way to ensure that students perceive the necessity of engaging multiple disciplines and develop the skills required to successfully apply knowledge. Historically, some business schools have attempted to do this through the case study method. Increasingly, innovative business schools are complementing the case method with action learning projects and in this sense are following the lead of medical schools, and also engineering schools that require field-based, engineering capstone projects.

Through learning and skills development that is conducted within a context selected both for its potential learning value and for its potentially positive impact on the problem being addressed, the role and purpose of business, the state of the planet, and awareness of existing and emerging societal issues is dramatically enhanced. Teaching disciplines in isolation may be an efficient way to transfer knowledge, but it misses the opportunity to develop in students and participants deep understanding of when and how to apply knowledge, and the skill to do so effectively.  Disciplinary expertise is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. It must be complemented by deep understanding and leadership skills if students are going to develop the competencies required to solve complex multi-disciplinary problems.

Issue-centered learning is organized around existing and emerging societal and environmental global issues (i.e. water, health, poverty, climate, pollution, migration, energy, renewable resources) on a global and local scale and ensures that students develop the following characteristics, skills and competencies that complements the functional knowledge they learn and enables them to become leaders for a sustainable future:

  • A global, holistic, long-term and visionary perspective
  • Clarity, focus and intensity of commitment
  • Highly motivated to do good; to do the right thing (ethical thinking translated into action)
  • Highly evolved capacity for creative, critical, holistic, ethical and systemic thinking and decision-making
  • Ability to navigate through uncertainty, ambiguity, setbacks, challenges and problems
  • Action and results oriented. Self-starter with a high need for achievement.
  • Patient (with respect to staying the course) AND Impatient (with respect to being driven to achieve results as fast as possible)
  • Highly skilled in learning by doing; adapting; making and learning from mistakes quickly and inexpensively
  • Integrative; skilled at boundary spanning
  • Skillful in figuring out root causes; determining critical success factors; and focusing on what is most important

An issue-centered education integrates disciplinary knowledge (finance, marketing, strategy, HR) when appropriate in the learning journey of attempting to resolving a specific issue (water, migration, climate change, poverty, etc.).  Conventional wisdom is challenges by uncovering underlying assumptions of the dominant discourse – in any domain. We need to develop innovators who will question the status-quo and challenge current assumptions. Issues-centered learning is critical for ensuring that graduates are able to embrace the larger context within which their organizations operate.


Safe and powerful learning environments

The basic requirement for developing these leaders is a framework that addresses the whole person and that creates the needed openness and support for them. As such, education must provide the fertile grounds that allows for profound personal and professional development. Students and participants, irrespective of their age, will need a serious amount of personal courage to confront their fears, to let go of the views they hold on the world and on themselves and to drop the mask of a so-called educated perspective. Daring to let go of the roles we all hold requires a safe space. Developing and exploring both an inner attitude that is connected to our inner self and an outer attitude that reflects a truly human view of compassion requires a learning environment in which making mistakes is considered progress rather than failure.

Developing a safe and powerful learning environment requires a shift from knowledge teaching to sharing the journey of learning. It forms the entry ticket for transformational learning and involves the ability of the facilitating teacher to hold a safe space within which the greatest potential can emerge. Creating this kind of safe environment requires the facilitator to master the following competencies:

  • Relate to each student with personal authenticity, not pretending to have competencies or knowledge that one lacks. This learning-oriented attitude on the part of a professor can set the tone that it is acceptable not to take the risks that learning entails.
  • Be comfortable with an appropriate degree of self-disclosure, thus paving the way for disclosure on the part of students to more fully discuss the challenges they are facing and the feedback they receive.
  • Make the participants’ needs a priority and demonstrate acceptance of the students’ current abilities both academically and in terms of their leadership development.
  • Live a nonjudgmental attitude as a needed form of support. Be non-prescriptive (as a professor) in class discussions.  Good facilitators do not tell participants exactly what to do, but rather ask (both directly and indirectly) that participants take responsibility for their own development in many ways.
  • Provide a process that places participants in the position of deciding what the information means to them and how to best integrate that into their learning and development. While this process can benefit from coaching and mentoring, it should not be one that gives students all the answers.[1]

 


[1]            King, S. & Santana, L. (2010). “Feedback Intensive Programs” in Van Velsor, E., McCauley, C., & Ruderman, M. (Eds.) Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development, 3rd Edition.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.


Fixing the game by Roger Martin

Another fine book by R. Martin and finally a concrete review of the financial system and crisis, the flawed underlying assumptions and how we can correct a system that has gotten way out of hand! A must read for anybody who wants to understand on what hinges our world right now!