CHICAGO – If change is in the air, how do we make change?
Try changing the leaders, but first educate them.
A Chicago-based group, the Leadership Conservatory, is pioneering this effort, and allowed me to observe the process.
Leadership is too important to be left to chance, these innovators believe. It also can’t be left to the usual suspects, such as the top-down military-style order-givers so often emulated in politics, the business world and elsewhere.
Instead the two women who have developed The Leadership Conservatory and their faculty aim to teach ethical leadership.
That’s not an oxymoron for Gia Interlandi and Susan Singleton, principals at the LC. The statement from their website reads like poetry"
The language of money all too often
defines our leadership and our identity.
We are more than consumers; we are citizens.
We are more than employees or economic actors;
we are a collective of good people.
We worry about the future of our businesses,
the viability of our democracy
and the world that our children will inherit.
We need thoughtful, skilled leadership.
We need it now.
To teach ‘thoughtful, skilled leadership’ the LC has adopted some unusual techniques.
“It’s experiential learning, a process of guided discovery,” Interlandi said. “We are working together to create a civil society so we teach group decision making, presentation skills, strategic planning, ethics.”
Seminar participants are challenged to discover and try out their own ideas, to “use it and see how it works,” she said. They begin to “understand and discover what it takes to create a civil society,” and they learn more about themselves and their true goals, as they get involved in the seminar.
“This makes you a stronger person,” she said. “If you can do a great presentation and lead effective group decision making, that counts for a lot.”
This process of learning and discovery is rigorous, like a graduate school seminar. The “students,” who typically are already in the world of work and want to improve their skills, sign up for four three-day sessions spread out over a few months.
Class sizes are typically six to 10 students with a ratio of one instructor per three students. Costs depend upon the number of sessions attended and are often picked up by corporate training departments.
Students commit to confidentiality agreements, so they can candidly discuss real problems and use the resources of the group to find answers.
They are assigned homework: rigorous reading, presentation preparation, research tasks.
Their homework includes researching the concept of civil society, and e-mailing their classmates a short essay about the concept.
They are assigned books to read and take on the role of the author in defense of the work, as a way to practice dealing with tough situations in a group setting.
In the day-long seminars, which include at least one evening dinner, the participants present and defend ideas, take quick quizzes, engage in roll playing exercises, and post answers to questions on flip charts. These exercises are designed to plumb their knowledge as well as allowing them to share opinions, formulate ideals and stimulate creativity.
After a few sessions they begin to know each other well, and a therapeutic community develops, promoting honesty and openness.
“Each group takes on its own personality,” Singleton said.
But that’s not all. They’re prodded to act on what they’re learning.
For example, during a session on diversity, the students were asked: “write a personal statement about what you can do to confront racism and make the world a better place.” Then they were told to sign their statement.
“This is a personal commitment for inclusion, a pledge we will hold you to,” Singleton said.
“In a racist environment, individuals have to push back,” said faculty member Rogercarole Rogers, leader of the diversity segment.
Rogers, an African American, began her presentation by talking about her own background, and establishing her credibility as a person with broad experience. Then she passed out a quiz designed to test the knowledge of the participants on racial issues.
When they missed most of the answers, they were open to learning new and perhaps for some, controversial knowledge, such as race as a political construct, not a matter of genetics.
Slavery, colonization, native American genocide -- America’s awful past that’s often ignored in history class -- was news to some in the seminar.
“It’s amazing what history we don’t know,” said one participant.
But new knowledge wasn’t the only point of the eye-opening presentation. Instead, the teachers turned it on its head by using the presentation itself as a learning tool.
The students learned to think about the format of the presentation as a lesson in itself, apart from the politics of racial identity. And they analyzed the leadership skills needed to handle this type of presentation. “As a leader, what would you have done?” Rogers asked.
“Everything is a case study,” Interlandi said.
The exchange led to a frank discussion about race and slavery.
“You have to find your voice on this,” Rogers said, “to move the conversation as the leader. “You’ve got diversity (in your workplace). To be in charge you have to have these conversations. Inclusion is not going to happen until we have the conversation.”
“You’re not going to lead unless you know what the issue is,” Interlandi said.
The session continued, only this time the target was stereotyping, including bias against gays. The group was told: “Think of someone who is different from you. Draw that person. Use words (and the drawing) to define the person who is opposite from you and what you think their bias is or what they struggle with.”
After the drawings and the discussion, the faculty member who led this segment, Dominic Cottone, asked, “How did you feel when you were doing this?”
That led to more discussion, and a group list of issues in the world and workplace that need change. Again the group members were asked to affirm their commitment to change, and to pledge to do something concrete to improve the world.
“When we leave here, do we act on it or just go back to our roles?” Cottone asked. “How can you create more awareness?”
They were asked to e-mail him with their actions, which ranged from volunteering at charities to writing letters to the editor.
No one volunteered to organize the revolution, or even mentioned ‘greed’ as a problem for the world, though it had been discussed at earlier sessions. But they had taken first steps out of their comfort zones.
Their final project for this day was to identify a leadership challenge in their own lives, and share the results. “This is the way we’re trying to help you launch,” Interlandi said.
The challenges could include ‘managing up,’ that is, managing their own bosses.
“Your boss is your client,” Interlandi said.
Interlandi reminded the group “Leadership is not formulaic. It’s a journey. It’s about you bringing your ideas into the room, taking risks.”
Interlandi and Singleton said their pet peeve is the ’10 steps to leadership’ approach.
Leadership is a continuous process, Singleton said. “You have to always go back to be a better leader. Each time I come back I learn something.”
“It’s a privilege to teach these classes,” Interlandi added.
Her new challenge, developed from this session, is to turn the LC ideas and materials into a book.
“Thank you for the kick in the pants,” she said later.
-- Elaine Hopkins