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As a faculty member, I often observe other facilitators teaching leadership classes. When I do, I become acutely aware of my almost allergic aversion to the excessive care-taking of participants in those classes. I find it particularly annoying when I see it in programs for “aspiring leaders” because in those same organizations coddling aspiring leaders in the classroom, just outside the door metaphorical throat-cutting and back-stabbing are the norm.
While I understand that teaching must have a care-taking component, I find its excessive use dishonest and incongruent. It reduces the overall message of a leadership course to an expression of vague aspirations for a more human and just organization, never really dealing with the reality of the organization’s workplace day-to-day, and therefore reducing its impact.
In my experience, new beginnings for participants rarely materialize when we discount the power of adaptive leadership properly taught, when we fail to demonstrate adaptive leadership in a “live” setting by raising the “heat” a bit. In fact, that tendency discounts all possibilities for real change and the amazing resourcefulness that individuals have at their disposal to make meaningful change happen when they develop the stomach for taking some risks and sheltering some disequilibrium.
I know that often excessive care-taking is based on lack of faith and fear: specifically lack of faith in the real possibility of the course content to make a difference, and fear of taking the responsibility to exercise leadership in class and take some risk, modeling for the students what leading actually feels and looks like “in action”. This is learning re-imagined in leadership development. This fear shields our learners from the discomfort and pain of learning from the edge. This fear is born of either an inability to understand how to facilitator needs to model leadership to teach it, and/or a basic cynicism about what real learning can do for students and for the world.
When facilitators that only “protect and present” in their classes, rather than “expose and make experience,” defend their modus operandi as the only acceptable way to deploy their own authority -one confirmed by years of experience teaching in the organization – I know that this method of deploying said authority is, in itself, what the program was designed to change in the first place. However without a deliberate and intentional attempt to break the authority dynamic of “making it safe” and “take care” handed down by the dominant ideology, the space for exercising leadership, both with authority and without, narrows to the point of becoming negligible and highly improbable for the facilitator.
When this happens we engage in paradoxical teaching through pure incongruence: we model for participants the impossibility or futility of exercising leadership WHILE exhorting and requesting that they exercise it themselves.
A possible way out of this conundrum is to return to the programs’ core purpose with some experiments that can test some assumptions. Experienced facilitators – unconsciously protecting the status quo – can start notice those assumptions in action and start experiencing with some alternative choices “in the moment.” My favorite experiment is disrupting the norm of “not interrupting the teacher or each other:” if a facilitator decides instead that students can interrupt anyone for the sake a stronger, collective purpose for learning, what does the class look like? How will it feel to learn?
Adriano understands how to increase your returns on leadership. He works with professionals in world-class organizations that include Philip Morris, Microsoft, the World Bank, Johns Hopkins University, the US Marine Corps, the State Department and NASA. A skilled experiential educator with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of ParticipAction Consulting, Inc., a firm committed to help clients redefine change, collaboration and power in their organizations. He co-authored "Teachable Moments of Leadership" with Jill Hufnagel in 2016, on a learning methodology that gets results by going from PowerPoint to …powerful!