Learning about leadership: up, down and sideways

How can leaders learn the high-level capabilities they will need in the next decade?

Charity leadership is a complex business. Charity leaders in the 2020s will find themselves working at the edge of what they know: indeed perhaps many already are. There are no silver leadership bullets: not even donated ones. Which is why charity leaders must be good at discovering and mastering new ways to lead – good at challenging their own assumptions and exploring other perspectives: good at learning, in fact.  As J. F. Kennedy wrote, ‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.’

How can leaders be supported to develop these high-level capabilities?  

Developing leaders is also a complex business. What kind of learning experiences will work for charity leaders in the 2020s? Surely not courses that focus on what we know about managing a charity in the 2010s. So how do we future-proof leadership development? George Santayana said that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But what can leaders in the 2020s learn from the experience of leaders who learned their trade in a pre-Brexit world? We shouldn’t exclusively rely on current leaders to advise future leaders based on what worked for them.  

Charity Leadership in the 2020s is a new programme designed to prepare charity leaders for the kinds of complexities and uncertainties that don’t yet exist or aren’t understood. We have to prepare the next generation of leaders to lead organisations that will change continuously.

Managers or leaders? Horizontal and vertical learning

We’re not talking about management development here. Management development is important, just as management is important: managers run that part of the organisational ‘operating system’ that scales up good ideas, makes them work cost-effectively, and helps people to see what will happen tomorrow. Managers need toolkits to keep the organisation on track, and that is what management development is for. You could think of it as horizontal learning: acquiring more skills, information, techniques, competencies. Getting better at performance management, dealing with conflict, project management are all examples of useful horizontal learning.

Leadership development, on the other hand, requires vertical learning: the development of more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking, to enable an organisational ‘operating system’ that is capable of accommodating new ideas. Conceptualising new ways of working with partners, working across silos and re-thinking organisational purpose are examples of what vertical learning might enable.

Leaders are also managers, so both horizontal and vertical learning are important. Charity Leadership in the 2020s focuses on the vertical.

We’ve used the terms ‘horizontal and vertical learning’ because they form the basis of a model that  has helped us in designing the programme. You can read more about the model on the Center for Creative Leadership website here. It sets out three primary conditions for leadership development programmes that aim to foster these more complex ways of thinking. They are:

  • Heat experiences: complex situations that disrupt and change participants’ ‘habitual ways of thinking’
  • Colliding perspectives: challenging, provocative contributors who differ both from each other and from the worldview of many of the participants
  • Elevated sensemaking – to make sense of the heat experiences and colliding perspectives and integrate them.

Leadership programmes that successfully combine these three primary conditions create a ‘sweet spot’ where learning can take place in all three areas.

To the three elements of this model, we have added a fourth. This is Collective learning. We believe that the challenges of leadership in the 2020s will require a collective, collaborative and flexible approach to decision-making. Traditional models of the leader as lone hero just don’t apply any more in leadership, and remembering Kennedy’s dictum we think there’s no space for them either in learning about leadership.

How are we enabling vertical learning?

We have designed into our programme all four of these elements. Among the heat experiences and colliding perspectives will be a realistic scenario, a real-life stretch project undertaken in collaboration between groups of participants and their organisations, and  a panel ‘provocation’. And sense-making structures will include Theory ‘U’ and the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to give us a shared language for exploring difference; and peer coaching in trios, creating a reflective space.

Charity leadership in the 2020s will be complex in ways that we cannot predict. And this is why we believe in taking leaders to the sweet spot where they can learn to lead – up, down and sideways.

Edward Kellow and Rebecca Nestor

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