Leadership in Management – Why change something that works?
“With rapidly increasing international competition the need for strong leadership in business is greater than ever. Yet there are times when personal quality seems to have run disturbingly thin.
Opinions differ on what, if anything, can be done to improve it. Those who hold that leaders are born, not made, cannot be expected to put forward a practical solution. Others look for effective ways to teach leadership – or, more realistically, to accelerate and develop the learning process.
Leaming, rather than teaching, is the prime activity at the Leadership Trust’s residential centre at the Herefordshire village of Weston- under-Penyard in the West of England. Founded in 1975, the Trust is a non-profit making but financially independent organisation which now passes some 2,000 men and women, mostly though not exclusively from commerce and industry, through its various courses each year.
The unique character of this operation lies in its total commitment. Most management development courses incorporate a “leadership” module; various bodies in the UK and on the Continent offer short courses in leadership. The Trust, however, focuses on nothing else.
Its methodology is based not only on the experience and beliefs of its founder, David Gilbert-Smith MC, but on a great deal of psychological research. This has been refined over the past 15 years in collaboration with the Trust’s principal supporters, which include 35 multinational corporations, and also through the close relationships which develop between the centre’s faculty and members of the courses.
Significantly, there are three things the centre does not do. It does not teach the personal skills of management, such as communication or decision making. Neither does it examine either the theory or mechanics of leadership and neither does it provide macho-style ‘adventure’ activities of the kind that test physical endurance rather the human qualities of leadership.
What the centre does set out to do is to make participants in its courses more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses in a leadership role, thus wiping them to amplify qualities they already have.
Their possession of those qualities can be taken as read, without opening up the born-or-made debate, because the courses are directed not to management trainees but to experienced persons who either hold senior posts already or are consciously being developed for such posts by their employers.
The centre’s basic 5 1/2 day course is restricted to 36 participants. They usually come from as many different organisations, though a course is occasionally monopolised by a single employer. At the outset, the participants are split into four equal groups, each of which has its own ‘tutor’ who acts as coach and catalyst rather than as traditional teacher.
There are continuous discussions and ‘reviews’ but no formal lectures. The essence of this learning activity is that participants are put into a series of situations which actually mirror the leadership problems they encounter in their working lives but enable principles to be identified more clearly because they are divorced from everyday stresses and patterns of behaviour.
Each project is reviewed first by the group and then, at selected times, by the entire course. Participants not only describe what they themselves have found out from it but listen to what others have found out. This “shared discovery” is at the heart of the Trust’s philosophy. Leadership, after all, is not practised in isolation like some management skills: David Gilbert-Smith defines it as “winning the hearts and minds of people to achieve a common purpose”. It follows that increased self-awareness has to be coupled with increased awareness of the needs and perceptions of others; and also that there is no single style of leadership that gets the best results in all circumstances.
The emphasis placed on mutual learning is one reason why the Trust, anticipating the highly competitive business conditions which will be created by the dismantling of EEC trade barriers in 1992, wishes to increase the steady flow of non-UK participants already attracted to the centre. Multinational employers in particular have much to gain from developing a cadre of senior managers with a heightened understanding of different nationalities both practise and respond to various styles of leadership.
Another basic principle of the courses is that appraisals are made by the participants themselves and neither implanted in them nor imposed upon them. Everything that happens at the centre is confidential; no reports are passed to employers. Nor are participants deliberately put under extreme pressure, as happens in some forms of management training. This is a strictly personal approach to leadership development and participants are expected to ‘walk through the course at their own pace’.
In certain projects there is open competition between the four groups. Usually the competitive element springs from the inherent desire of leaders and potential leaders to excel in whatever they do.
Projects come thick and fast and cover a wide range of activity. The majority simulate industrial operations, though the emphasis here is on leadership situations rather than on financial strategies divorced from human factors.
A second type of project appears to be derived from ‘adventure’ training but has quite a different purpose. Participants are asked to disclose the physical conditions which they find most disturbing – such as deep water, heights or a claustrophobic environment. They are then involved on an individual basis in appropriate activities – such as scuba-diving, rock-climbing or caving after having been given a crash course in the techniques of that activity.
The lesson they learn from this experience is how easy it is to forget what they know when placed under extreme personal pressure. They are also forcibly reminded that leadership often has to be practised under conditions not of their own choosing.
Sun activities are closely supervised by experts and take account of the participant’s medical history.
There are ideal facilities for such activities within easy reach of Weston-under-Penyard. These are supplemented by specially developed facilities such as a diving pool which drops to a depth of 11ft. That is why most of the courses are held at the centre. However, the Trust also has a mobile unit which is well equipped to run courses on an employer’s own premises, not just in the UK but on the Continent too, where the Trust has visited Brussels and Helsinki amongst other European cities.
With a concept as broad as “leadership” it is not easy to break down the traditional barrier between academic thinking and “real life”. The Trust relies on two things to do this. The first is its financial independence, its growing band of associate members do not support it with charitable donations but are committed to making regular use of the centre’s courses. The second is that the hard core of full-time tutors is reinforced by drawing on a constantly changing pool of some 120 practising managers, of top companies, who have themselves undergone leadership development at the centre.
Currently the full-time team consists of eight Course Directors, six Tutors and about 60 support staff. The centre’s commercial success (some 80% of this year’s places are already taken up) is enabling it to update and extend its resources in anticipation of 1992.
A major element of the Leadership Trust’s course is the follow-up process including a follow-up programme and other short courses, which enable individuals to transfer and implement the lessons learnt to their own place of work. This generates a progressive momentum of personal growth and team building.
Leadership is the unmeasurable quality that makes the difference between a good manager and an excellent one. The Trust in the forefront recognising that this is not a quantifiable factor but one that only comes from gaining self-realisation in a safe environment.
The most valuable asset of any organisation or country is the quality of its leadership.”