September 26, 2009. I sit looking around the executive education room at the Carlson Business School amazed at how it has transformed. The rectangular tables conventionally arranged in stadium-style—oriented to the large screen and PowerPoint presentations—are pushed against the wall, replaced now with café tables, decorated with checkered tablecloths, small vases with flowers, markers, and paper capturing the discussions we have shared this afternoon. The “we” is a group of twenty-five other professional “leadership educators” who have come to build their capacity to offer transformative leadership development programming; we come from all sectors and sites of work: nonprofits, corporations, government, and higher education. Our conversations focused on sharing our collective wisdom about developing integrative leadership, as well as what we wanted to do together in the remaining days of the six-day program. An intense day of reading discussions, engaged lectures about adaptive leadership, probing case analysis in small groups, physical movement, and creative expression has concluded.
As one of the hosts in this program sponsored by the Center for Integrative Leadership (CIL), I am cognizant of the risks we are taking. I don’t believe the University of Minnesota has hosted many training programs that push people to integrate their analytical and creative, professional and personal selves as rigorously as this effort.
In the day’s lecture material about adaptive leadership, one of the hosts, Val Ulstad, talked about the importance of knowing institutional context, the necessity of loss through organizational change processes, and the fact that “exercising leadership alone is heroic suicide.” As I survey my experiences of the past two days and anticipate the four remaining, I physically feel exhausted but realize the potency of these ideas. I am hosting adaptive change at the University, practicing in real time the lessons we are learning in the Forum.
I had gotten drafted into participation in this program because I was acting as the chair of a CIL committee, as often happens in University-based initiatives. Committee members from seven different campus units had identified such a program could add value to the University community and our partners in business, nonprofits, and government. Over a number of months, we had planned the effort with two consultants designed, as the marketing materials stated, “to advance the work of those who develop leadership and together improve our individual and collective capacities…” As the date for the launch neared, I had begun to worry about the program’s effectiveness. The training team had not come together on content or approach; we did not share a common language or reference point about how we might explore the programs’ focus on adaptive leadership (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002).
I was stressed by these events, aware that as a tenure-track faculty member, I really didn’t have time for any of this anyway; this type of activity is not incentivized, rewarded, or really even recognized in my annual review. Yet, I felt responsible for trying to pull together a high quality program under CIL’s auspice.
In trying to fix the problem, I knew that high-caliber instructors were critical. As Wendy Morris stepped up, and we brought Val Ulstad on board, I realized that I did not know enough myself about either the Adaptive Leadership content or the hosting process Wendy kept mentioning. So after deep personal reflection, I decided to remain a member of the hosting team but really focus my attentions on tasks I was qualified to do—interface with the staff and facilities at the University, provide academic legitimacy, and participate actively with other leadership educators.
As noted by Morris, this program was the first known introduction of a full-fledged hosting approach in the University of Minnesota community. I did not understand the language Wendy was using about “hosting,” “stewarding,” “emergent change,” “harvesting,” just-in-time Eight Breaths of Process Architecture. Frankly, the language just seemed to be something she used as a creative corporate/community-based consultant with a high-profile reputation. I also was a bit uncertain about how training would happen without lots of PowerPoint slides and handouts, the typical tools of adult professional education.
I did recognize, though, that providing leadership education requires a different set of skills than teaching biology, mathematics, or organizational analysis. The science of leadership studies is weak and yet there are thousands upon thousands of cases in which leadership was a significant factor in creating positive results. The most effective leadership educators stress the integration of analytical capacities and emotional intelligence, the self-reflective and strategic (Palmer, 2004; Parks, 2005). And, the program being developed by Morris and Ulstad made participants walk their talk. Personal risks and significant learning was required if people were going to effectively enable others to understand leadership.
As the program unfolded, I saw how much energy emerged from exercises where the instructor had not predetermined the outcome, where she was inviting people into an experience of the content so that active learning was happening in real time, where learning was happening among participants unmediated by the trainers. As a scholar, I know how important student motivation, relevance, and social learning are in creating positive outcomes. And this approach, what I now recognize happens when we host learning, seemed to leverage all of these in the program.
Yet, there were paradoxes to manage. A few participants were deeply uncomfortable with the experiential approach. A few stopped coming, only to reengage later. Others kept expressing their discomfort. And staff in the facilities we were using were used to a more routinized and predictable training program; numerous times, I needed to interface, explaining why suddenly we had need for break-out space, new art materials, or access to the space after conventional hours. At every juncture, though, these accommodations were worth their bother, given the reactions of most participants to this unusual and holistic learning experience.
As is the practice at the CIL, we did a multi-leveled, structured evaluation of the Forum for Leadership Educators. First, during the program itself, the hosting team solicited feedback after every two-day session of the program to inform their approach and design for subsequent meetings. This type of formative evaluation is essential to an iterative approach, staying close to the participants’ experience so instructors are able to craft a learning experience that both stretches and provides safety.
Secondly, we did a more conventional program evaluation. We sent out an online survey soon after the Forum ended and, six months afterwards, conducted phone interviews with 75 percent of the participants. The responses affirmed my own sense of the experience. While the format was not what they had expected, the majority found great value in learning about themselves, other participants, and the concept of adaptive leadership. They also strongly suggested that CIL step into the role of sponsor for similar programs in the future.
Shaping a New Direction
The results of this Forum, and other CIL initiatives, caused us to rethink how we might build a practice field using the Art of Hosting approach. Other Center leaders and I participated in the first community-wide Art of Hosting trainings offered in Minnesota in January 2011. Reflecting upon it now, I realize that this first Forum and its positive results made me ready to champion a more systematic introduction of Art of Hosting to the whole University community.
My experience also gives me compassion for other leaders willing to step out and consider how their own classroom, department, school, or center might benefit from more skill building as an essential tool organizations often overlook—Conversations that Matter. In the complex organizations of the 21st century, the simplest acts can yield profound results. But they must be supported by leaders willing to introduce and defend simple acts as mechanisms of significant change.