Leadership Immersion - resulting in transformational learning
Author: Clive Wilson
Thirty years involvement in leadership development has taught the team at Primeast a lot about the nature of leadership and the development of leaders. In recent years, unsurprisingly, the challenge for most leaders has been leading in an increasingly complex context. With this in mind, many of our clients have found it useful to distinguish between horizontal and vertical leadership development.
Without attempting to write a dissertation on this, I'd like to offer a simple differentiation between these two crucial elements for anyone who hasn't come across the terminology and then offer just one approach for vertical development worth considering.
Horizontal development - building the leadership toolkit
I like to think of horizontal leadership development as adding more skills to the leader's toolkit (conceptually laid out side-by-side on the leader's workbench). So programmes like presentation skills, influencing, engaging staff, empowerment and so on are one-by-one adding to the tools the leader can draw on.
However, studies have shown that leading in complex situations associated with the workplace today, requires more than a strong skill-set. Leaders also need a mature mind-set.Robert Keegan describes this evolution as a progression up 'psychological levels' (hence vertical development). At the top end of this scale the leader has to learn how to move from a self-authoring mind-set, where they (as the term suggests) decide what needs to happen and make it so, to a self-transforming mind-set where the purpose of their work is clearly bigger than they are and they understand that to serve it well they must collaborate with others who hold different and often opposing views or who may be culturally different.
There are many ways to help leaders evolve their mind-set and mature in this vertical fashion. We use specialist diagnostics to help leaders understand their current leadership approach and to see where their developmental requirements fall. This is followed with coaching which supports leaders step by step through their development plan. And we also draw on experiential learning in groups and teams where leaders work with skilled facilitators to help them make sense of their learning experience.
Immersion Programmes offer something completely different
One of many types of experiential learning, especially suited to vertical leadership development is an immersion programme, so called because we immerse leaders in an experience which is completely different from their 'normal' day-to-day existence and which stretches them emotionally and challenges their thinking and beliefs. Immersion programmes encourage the participants to see a purpose which is bigger than themselves. These programmes can be as creative as the sponsoring organisation wishes and we have designed programmes taking leaders to the developing world to help solve health problems, work with communities to improve employment prospects, engage with young people on environmental issues to name but a few. In large organisations, immersion programmes can also be designed for several cohorts of learners in a series, working on a problem where a real difference can be made over time and the baton passed from one cohort to another.
It is also important to note that immersion programmes are not limited to a physical experience. Much is possible with a creative and innovative approach and immersion programmes can be just as effectively designed for the digital learning space. Our in-house design team have used learning technologies to create immersive virtual scenarios or simulations which test and challenge the participants' thinking and provide a valuable opportunity for participants to move away from their comfort zone and enter a safe space where they can practice and reflect on their physiological response to a virtual activity.
Working on immersion programmes like these is not a new thing, in fact Primeast has been involved in this type of development for almost thirty years and our team can share stories of some amazing experiences. And many organisations organise such interventions for themselves, which is great. But I would like to conclude with a thought.
The value of external facilitation
People who get to work on immersion experiences will often describe them as 'life-changing'. I still remember the first of many trips to Malawi and being involved with the Open Arms Infant Home. But to gain maximum learning from such experiences, they have to be well-designed and supported by skilled facilitators who don't get lost in the task (which is easy to do) but instead know when to ask participants the challenging questions- encouraging them to take a 'balcony' perspective on what is going on in the moment rather than remaining on the 'dancefloor' for the whole time and failing to gain the deeper learning. These are sometimes posed to the whole group and sometimes to a participant in a quiet space at just the right time. Or to play back an observation with appropriate sensitivity so a leader can reflect on the wisdom (or otherwise) of their actions and try a new and alternative approach. The skill in this must not be undervalued.