“Where’s the leadership lesson in spending the evening in a pub, listening to a heart warming acoustic mix of pop classics, nostalgic chansons & swinging songs? What has Tio Pepe & The Bordellos to do with leadership development?” one could wonder, as I did during the last night of the Next Generation Leadership Program (NGL). Sting brought the answer, as the participants sang united “how fragile we are, how fragile we are…”. Leadership is touching the heart and soul of people, as Prof. Ron Meyer explained during the day. Tio Pepe & The Bordellos did just that.
“We know what’s happening in the world. We know what we want to do in terms of strategy and activities. But how to make people follow?” opened Ron Meyer the last module. “Leadership is about influencing people so that they come along voluntarily. You can compare it to riding a horse. Riding a bike is easy. It’s technical. You push the start button, kickstart the engine, give gas and off you go. A horse doesn’t have a start button. It doesn’t have a throttle. A horse follows you if it trusts you, if you connect.”
“We’re not talking about the ranch horses you can hire for a one hour pre-programmed tour,” added Ron to the comparison. “Those horses only follow you because they get rewards or punishments, not because you’re the leader. You think you direct the horse, but you’re dreaming. A lot like most managers think they lead people in today’s organisations.” So in essence, the next generation leadership challenge is about helping those ranch horses in modern organizations to reconnect to their sense of freedom and proud.
Paul De Bruycker, CEO of Indaver joined the program and gave a real life testimonial on his effort to internationalize his 25-year-old waste management company. The challenges are clear, the strategy is set, the structure has changed. But now the behaviours and mindset of his employees ‘have to follow’. De Bruycker is an authentic and value driven leader: “Our values are our reference. They are the basis for every discussion with customers, employees and shareholders.” He ended his presentation with an open slide: “What about leadership?”
Few learning situations are so engaging as real life and open ended cases. The feedback for Paul was sharp and manifold: “Pauls story is sound, but it’s not engaging. Where are the societal challenges in the mission? And his leadership style is still a bit paternalistic and cautious…” Translating these findings into workable recommendations proved to be more difficult. We easily fall back in basic ‘change’ managerial schemes: “Create sense of urgency. Organize internal communication. Build informal networks. Do job rotation.” But one advice struck a chord, as Paul himself feedbacked later on: “Get your story straight. Make it engaging.”
Developing a story is easier said then done, as experienced the participants during their more personal work. They peer coached each others ambitions, competencies, roles and beliefs. And in the last step they gathered all the pieces of their leadership puzzle into an action plan. The ‘leadership angle’ proved powerful as it integrates all perspectives: self & organisation & reality & future. The analytic approach pushed the thinking beyond the intentional level.
“What goes around, comes around.” Joe Nellis, academic director of the program, took the group back into the global context as he did in the first module 6 months before. And the world has changed: Europe on the edge of the debt cliff, a Tsunami hit Japan and it’s economy, USA bumps on the bottom of the recession, Arab countries are in revolution, Indonesia & South-Africa join the BRIC club with high growth percentages.
Leadership is adaptive work to changing reality. No doubt the NGL-participants are now better equipped to scan the changes, to keep looking at the big picture and never stop questioning themselves and their people. But above all, to value and foster true human relationships in working together.
“How fragile we are, how fragile we are…”