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Eia Hawai‘i! (Behold Hawai‘i!) Sighting Mauna Kea. Painting by Herb Kawainui Kane

Four Lessons On Learning Leadership

In 2001, the MA in Leadership program was just getting started when 9/11 happened.This event all but guaranteed that this new century would bring forth unprecedented challenge and change. While this profound disruption to our world order was generated from the outside, 15 years later there would be another major disruption to our world order, namely the 11/9 election, but this time it came from within. Both events confirmed that turbulence is the new norm. These kinds of disruptions certainly tempt us toward authoritarian responses, yet the very nature of a dynamic world full of uncertainty requires a different leadership response. We believe this is best approached through a shared inquiry, guided by such questions as:

  • What kind of leadership is needed to skillfully navigate the turbulent and uncertain waters of today’s world?
  • How do we ensure that we leave no one behind as we move into our future?
  • How do we awaken, nurture, and bring forth all of our unique gifts and contributions?
  • How do we create the conditions that enable us to work together so we can not just survive but thrive?

We believe by engaging in a shared inquiry, in which the faculty, students, and alumni all participate; we create new practical knowledge in leadership, responsive to the world in which we belong. As a participant in this shared inquiry, important insights and lessons have emerged, which we can fold into and build upon, our present and future inquiry. There have been many lessons and insights gained, below I list just a few the key ones. After considering these lessons, we invite you to share your own reflections as well in the comments section below.

I. Leadership and management are distinct and complementary dimensions of organizational life.

One way to think about the distinction between the two is on one hand to view leadership as the innovative and regenerative dimension of organizational life, which promotes adaptability. On the other hand, management can be viewed as the structuring and regulating dimension, which promotes reliability. Knowing when to employ one mode versus the other is key to effective stewardship of organizations in today’s world. Also, knowing the difference helps in identifying developing the competencies needed to address our challenges. Too many leadership development programs conflate leadership with management, which means people often don’t fully develop their leadership competencies and intelligence.

II. To learn leadership means developing a full range of competencies.

The skillful practice of leadership in the 21st century requires a breadth of competencies and multiple intelligences. This means that we need to expand our competencies and intelligences beyond merely the rational, analytic and practical, to include the emotional, social, systemic and cross-cultural, which serve the creativity and collaboration that are increasingly needed with today’s leadership.

III. The best way to learn leadership is through blended learning designs.

There is no one best way for learning leadership. However, blending immersive with-in-the-midst of action learning activities has shown to greatly enhance one’s learning in leadership. Immersive learning programs, such as training and education programs, provide a nourishing and generative learning environment to explore new ideas and perspectives, to learn new skills, and to experiment with new behaviors and actions. In-the-midst-of action learning, such as coaching, action inquiry groups, and mentoring, provide real world opportunities and feedback to apply, test new learning, and reveal new areas for development. Linking these two pathways of learning is the best way to build broad skills and enhance your capacity in leadership.

IV. A focus on the aspirational and the future.

Because the world today is in perpetual change, we need to learn leadership for a world that is emerging, and towards an envisioned future. Leadership is not only about overcoming challenges but also about fulfilling opportunities. All too often formal leadership learning programs focus solely on what is already known, but not enough on what is “yet to be known;” on what is broken and not enough on what is possible. Given that leadership is the innovative, adaptive, and aspirational dimension of organizational life, developing capacities in reflection, creativity, shared inquiry, dialogue and collaboration are essential for enacting leadership in today’s unknown and emerging world.

Certainly, there are many more lessons and insights that I could glean from participating in the shared inquiry with over 600 learners and over 35 faculty colleagues over the past 15 years, and these four come to mind as the MA in Leadership moves into 2017. We invite you, and others that you know, to join us in engaging the question, how do we learn and practice the kind of leadership needed in today’s world?  We look forward to reading your comments in the comments section below!

About Ken Otter, Ph.D.

Ken Otter, Ph.D.
Ken is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Co-director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary's College. Areas of scholarship include: global leadership development, leadership coaching education, multi-stakeholder collaboration, collective creativity, and the application of lifespan and wisdom development in organizational life.

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