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Fighting, Singing, Connecting: Four Dynamic Ways to Teach Leadership

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a conference, "How Can Leadership Be Taught?" hosted by the Harvard Business School and organized by professors Scott Snook, Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana. The two-day event included nearly 30 demonstrations of how leadership can be taught. This was not dry academia: Presenters had us on our feet, visiting battlefields, sharing stories and even drawing pictures. Here are some of the presentations that caught my attention.

1.Where Army Leaders Meet -- Online

Lt. Col. Tony Burgess introduced us to CompanyCommand, an online community for Army company-level leaders in the Army. Burgess created CompanyCommand and its sister site, PlatoonLeader, with fellow West Point alum, Lt. Col. Nate Allen. Together, they wanted to facilitate "front porch"-type conversations and help overcome the isolation that military leaders can face when they assume command.

But the sites are more than discussion boards: The latest version includes interactive learning, such as short videos, shot on location in Iraq and other places, in which Army leaders share tricky dilemmas they have faced. At the conference, we watched an Army officer explain how he had spent months organizing a meeting with key Iraqi leaders -- only to have a American soldier make a disparaging comment at the wrong moment, prompting a walk-out from the Iraqis. What to do? Online users can write in their own answers, then see what not only what fellow leaders and leadership experts have said, but how the real-life story ended. (In this case, the officer made the soldier apologize in person to the Iraqi leaders.)

These online communities offer a model of how to teach leadership online, as well as how to effectively organize peer-driven communities around leadership.

2. Where Drama Meets Leadership

Midway into the conference, a presenter walked to the center of the room. In the audience, we expected her to fire up a PowerPoint presentation and walk us through some bullet points. Instead, she broke into song. Not exactly what you'd expect in a roomful of academics and executives, but her point was made: the courage, poise, and emotional authenticity needed to sing are also, and not coincidentally, the attributes good leaders need to engage and inspire others. The singing presenter was Belle Linda Halpern, a principal of The Ariel Group, a Massachusetts-based firm that provides "theater-based" training programs on leadership and other topics for executives and organizations.

Great actors, Halpern and her colleague Richard Richards, pointed out, do more than simply pretend to be someone else on screen. Rather, they "find a side of the character they can find in themselves" and perform with authenticity. Leaders, like actors, then, are charged with a similar task: Inhabiting their own skins and expressing themselves to others. Hopefully, however, most leaders will be able to do this without breaking into song.

3. Looking Inward for Answers

At the conference, we were treated to a presentation from Bill George, known for his dynamic, even edgy, teaching style. George began his session by asking us to write down the one thing we didn't want anyone else in the room to know about us. It wasn't a comfortable assignment, especially with new acquaintances sitting on either side of us, but that seemed to be exactly what George was after: Putting us on knife's edge, pondering the hard questions. "Everyone wants to know who you really are," he said, and yet we hide some of the most important things about ourselves.

The question, he said, is, "When do you go from seeking the world's esteem to being grounded in fulfilling your own intrinsic desires?" Not a small question, but not an impossible one either. George brought with him two students who had been through his class and lived to tell about it. They shared their own personal stories with our conference; Rye Barcott told how he managed his non-profit in the Nairobi slums while on mission with the Marines in Djibouti, while another student, born in Jamaica, told how she struggled with balancing her obligations to her family in impoverished Jamaica with her own career in finance. Both explained how George broke the class up into small groups, and how each student had to tell -- with an excruciating level of honesty -- their own personal narrative. The point of focusing inward, said George, is obvious. "Every leader who has failed has primarily failed to lead themselves."

4. Learning Leadership Beyond the Classroom

Just when we'd had enough of sitting at our desks, our leadership conference boarded buses, en masse, and drove to Lexington and Concord, Mass., site of the first battles of what became the Revolutionary War. Author and speaker (and On Leadership panelist) Ed Ruggero gave us the background to the battle, how the colonists had been resisting taxation from the mother country, England, and why violence between colonists and Red Coats was in the air. Once at the Concord battlefield, we walked through the misty, green landscape, and Ruggero brought the scene to life, explaining how the British troops found themselves trapped with few options, facing off with angry, gun-wielding "Minutemen" who eventually chased them all the way back to Boston.

This on-the-ground discussion of leadership is part of a military tradition known as the "staff ride," a tradition started in the U.S. after the Civil War, when nearby battlefields made optimal "classrooms" for teaching military units about combat, strategy and leadership. "Being there helps you realize all the pressure leaders faced in that moment," said Ruggero. But as one participant point out after our own staff ride was over, the model can be extended beyond the military metaphors: Visiting any place where dramatic decisions have played out offers a chance for leadership learning. Who knows, maybe Dick Fuld will be leading staff rides at Lehman Brothers in the future.

What leadership experiences have been most meaningful for you? Help us collect leadership teaching and learning resources here.

By Andrea Useem  |  June 12, 2009; 2:45 PM ET  | Category:  Leadership Training Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I am am enamored with instructive simulations, but not yet very good at designing them.

In my last job I participated in and then helped to facilitate a "supply chain" simulation for about 15 participants. A month would elapse every 10 minutes during which the participants were expected to complete a cycle of tasks and decisions that were taught elsewhere in the course.

The level of challenge was monitored and precisely controlled by the game masters.

I am developing and seeking more participatory activities like this one that teach leadership practices and principles.

Posted by: LCY1 | June 18, 2009 5:02 PM

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