Ziffpage Medtronic

Medtronic Inc., the Minneapolis-based medical technology company, is a good example of an organization that underwent the corporate equivalent of soul searching, as former CEO Bill George lays out in his book Authentic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2003).

It is during this process that ethical questions must be grappled with, such as what the organization owes the public and its employees beyond the narrow obligation to increase shareholder value.

This is where an organization must decide whether it truly values creativity and is willing to establish the conditions under which it will thrive. Once these basic, difficult questions have been answered, it is ready to choose a fitting approach to leadership education.

Leadership development programs with a large action component seem to be more successful than purely academic ones, at least in the minds of the people who attend them.

Interestingly, one of the things Sarah Kauss found was that almost any kind of action-oriented program has the potential to make participants feel more confident about their leadership abilities.

Kauss speculates that one reason so many different approaches, including—surprise!—grooming horses (but not crystals), seem to work is that employees tapped for such programs benefit from the glow of having been singled out in the first place. She argues that there is probably an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in leadership education.

Being away from the workplace seems to make would-be leaders feel safer to expose their weaknesses and to take chances. In a fresh setting, participants can practice social skills, including communicating effectively, without the anxiety that often arises when they interact in the minefield that is the typical workplace. The off-site program is a blessedly office-politics-free zone.

But organizations routinely undermine the leadership education they pay for so dearly.

Typically, the individual comes back a changed person—bursting with new ideas, committed to the organization that paid for the life-changing experience, and eager to share fresh insights and exercise newly strengthened abilities. The cruel and unusual punishment that too often awaits the genuinely improved leader is that organizations have no desire to incorporate anything the individual has learned into organizational life.

This was one of the frequent barriers to organizational change that Alimo-Metcalfe discovered in a recent study. Another was that those who have been genuinely transformed by leadership education often find previously overlooked flaws and limitations in their superiors.

Until we know more about how leadership truly develops, leadership education programs may be mostly acts of faith, evidence of our belief that authentic leadership is possible. But there is a way an organization can reap the apparent benefits of leadership education without paying a huge price.

According to Kauss and others, people learn the most in off-site programs when the problems they deal with are real and important. Every organization faces such problems every day—how to deal with unexpected competition, how to prepare for leadership succession, how to cope with a scandal.

An organization that is willing to be self-critical and reflective can turn each of these problems into a compelling case study and a chance to train its own leadership. These are learning opportunities that shouldn't be missed.

Put unexpected groups of employees on task forces to deal with problems as they arise. Encourage—and reward—creative, candid analysis of what has led to the problem as well as possible solutions. Provide the teams with the time, tools and information they need to make the best possible recommendations.

Take their recommendations seriously. And don't be surprised when your own in-house education program turns out a whole new crop of eager, able would-be leaders.

Warren Bennis is a Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California and Chairman of Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership.

This article was originally published on 10-01-2004
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