It’s been a long time since I posted my thoughts about leadership, because every time I sit down to write lately, I’ve been thinking about the ways we circle around the same ideas and ideals. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, believing or disbelieving, or even worthiness. After two years of writing about the spirit of leadership in this blog, I find myself wondering how we can get to the core of our leadership questions, the mystery at the heart of every leadership development project — how do we train good leaders?
Leadership training is difficult because every gathering of leaders is so diverse. They may have similar jobs and aspirations, perhaps even speak the same language of values to match their company mission. But they are each unique in their approach to leadership because of their upbringing, national, regional and subcultural connections, spiritual beliefs, and personal mythography (the archetypal stories that drive our expectations and relationships).
So when the facilitator tells a certain story, say about a famous leader like Nelson Mandela, she activates a whole variety of resonances in each participant, resonances that can’t be tracked without long-term relationships and interactive assessments.
Because leadership trainings are group experiences, these individual interpretations and reactions are more often suppressed or self-edited. We depend on social norms in which we publicly perform agreement, responding to peer pressure and the institutional context that brings us together. In any given training, we create a collective story, teach participants to perform collective values we hold about leadership.
We teach interpretations of leadership through the leadership stories we tell. While we can learn a lot about effective leadership by taking on the values and insights shared in an given training, the opposite can also happen. Individuals may react against the performance of quiet or active conformity, rejecting the training as unrealistic or unconnected from reality.
In fact, the the insight, in fact, isn’t necessarily connected to the inner reality of some people, or might be counter-intuitive because of different experiences. Mandela’s story can be told in many ways, with many spins on leadership practices. His life and legacy are not monolithic or easy to summarize, although his biography and accomplishments are useful as an object lesson for many leadership theories. Intercultural questions make our interpretations of his life even more problematic.
There is no one Mandela the Leader, and no one type of leader learner. It’s hard to make a case for the pragmatic possibilities suggested by exemplary leaders when a training doesn’t permit alternative interpretations or performances of leadership.
So the question I’m exploring in my teaching and learning is this: how do we honor a diversity of leadership styles and stories while we work to create a collective understanding of good leadership?
Without teaching and learning experiences that create discussion and disagreement, without practice processes that encourage experimentation, messy collaboration and self-reflection, we run the risk of using “classic” leadership stories to teach cultural leadership conformity. This serves a purpose for organizations, and probably reflects the dominant ideas of mainstream culture. But is it leadership training, or simply another way to create prominent followers?
Just wondering…. What do you think?