Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Learning leadership

Posted by Jean Adams 

Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. I didn’t want to go on a leadership course. I have been on leadership and management courses before. They do Myers Briggs, tell you the difference between urgent and important, show you some schematic models of management and send you home. If you’re lucky, there are nice cakes at coffee time.

But, you now. Another fellowship application, another training and development plan. Apart from the knowledge-based things I wanted to learn, I couldn’t think of much. But someone else before me showed my their previously successful form and they had ‘leadership’, so I thought it might be the sort of thing that funders like.

This current leadership course seems a little different from the last few. To begin with, there was an application process. It was made clear I wouldn’t automatically get a place. I had to complete an application form, take part in an hour long telephone interview, and submit a reflective self-enquiry (exactly what it sounds like). As you might be able to tell from the fellowship bit, I do a good line in convincing people that I am totally, passionately, and unfailingly dedicated to whatever it might be that I am trying to achieve today. I felt bad after the interview that I had done such a good job at talking leadership bollocks nonsense. Even worse when I got a place on the back of it.

Ashridge Business School, Hertfordshire
The course involves four residential stays at a Victorian gothic mansion in Hampshire, plus a whole bunch of other stuff. For goodness sake, do you know how long it takes to get from rural Northumberland to Hampshire (6 hours door-to-door)? I wasn’t awed when I finally arrived in the grand entrance hall. I was grumpy about the length of the journey, infuriated by the assumption that I need luxury to learn, and starting to calculate the monetary and opportunity cost of putting up 21 mid-career academics in this place for 48 hours. And the timetable started at 4pm and didn’t finish until 10pm. By bedtime I was tired and grumpy.

After being invited to record our overnight reflections in our leadership journals (yes, really), day two proper started with an hour creating a pictorial representation of our current leadership context. I was still a bit grumpy. But then I saw the table of art supplies laid out and my making streak took over. What a lovely way to spend a Wednesday morning – making a picture representing my university department with all the art supplies I could ever want. Sometimes I get paid to do the most amazing things.

My current leadership context: no you can't have an interpretation
After coffee we each presented our creation. After lunch we were invited to spend some time walking the grounds with another person we were interested in talking more to. Then, inevitably, Myers-Briggs. Again. By the time I phoned home on the end of day two I was feeling more positive about the whole experience. I’d had an interesting and fun, if long day. What had I learnt? Genuinely? Nothing much. I’d met some interesting and bright people. Perhaps I’d met the crème-de-la-crème of mid-career health researchers in the UK today. I’d established that we share many common experiences, without sharing much in the way of research topic commonality. Maybe I was on my way to making some friends. But I’m not sure I’d learnt anything.

Day three was almost entirely devoted to breaking into groups of seven and sharing our ‘stories’ with our groups. The stories of how we got to where we are today. The stories of the defining moments in our lives. Sometimes, the difficult, traumatic, deeply personal stories. The stories that have perhaps never been articulated before – certainly not to colleagues, but often not to friends either. There were tears – of laughter as well as pain. By the end of 48 hours we had arrived at the very unusual place of knowing each other well enough to share our stories. But not well enough to be scared of sharing our stories. I think the last time I experience this was at summer camp in my teens. It feels very special when you are in the middle of it.

We had learnt almost nothing in the way of leadership. Apparently that will come.


  1. Can you learn leadership?

    1. I guess the premise of any leadership training is that you can learn how to do leadership better. I wrote this on the train home from the course. Due to the massive journey, I then still had time to read the first few chapters of the course book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Living-Leadership-Practical-Ordinary-Financial/dp/0273772163/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1360154118&sr=1-1) and it did reiterate a few things we were actually told (so only a short term impression that I didn't learn anything). One of the key assertions is that you can learn better leadership skills. I think the course is set up such that we are not 'taught' leadership, but more coach each other to experiment with a wider range of styles and so learn leadership. I guess it will take some time before I can confirm if I learnt from the process.

  2. I'm from an earlier cohort of the same programme. Cannot rate it highly enough. There's a bit of apprehension from people who have heard of it, like it's a "cult", and it's certainly not like any other course I've ever been on, but I just think we are so lucky, so privileged to have gone. Enjoy it. And it's a great picture!

  3. Could you say what the name of the course is and maybe a link? Sounds fabulous!

    1. Hi Emily - The course is NIHR's Leadership Programme for Trainees, delivered by Ashridge Business School. There are more details here: http://www.nihr.ac.uk/faculty/Pages/Leadership_Programme.aspx