“Nobody is a leader” – should we do leadership training differently?

You don’t have to read a self-help book to become a good leader, you could just drink juice instead.

The days of PowerPoint-based leadership training sessions might be numbered. “People are sick of them and they just don’t work,” says Ananth Gopal, director and facilitator at Polykala.

In an attempt to escape the shackles of our tech-tangled offices, people are turning to new forms of training. They want an impact that lasts, rather than the learning sugar-hit of a two-day seminar.

The way to avoid fleeting bursts of motivation is by giving participants an experience, says Gopal. That could be something as small as improvisational theatre, or something more adventurous such as trek into the Tasmanian wilderness.

Polykala offers alternative leadership training options that include theatre, music and mindfulness practices. Using frameworks  developed by professors and leadership experts Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Polykala aims to help people understand leadership by distinguishing it from authority.

“Nobody is a leader,” says Gopal. “Leadership is not something you have; it’s something you do. Why not look to artists in order to really get teeth stuck into doing, practicing and demonstrating leadership rather than having, owning or acquiring authority?”

Educational theorist David Kolb created an experiential learning theory (ELT) in which he says “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”.

Kolb’s ELT has four stages: concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. Or more simply: do, observe, think and plan.

During a Polykala session, participants might be asked to sample flavours of juice with the ingredients covered up (this is the ‘do’). Gopal says the purpose of the exercise is to get people to “savour their own experiences beyond the technical side” (the ‘observe’).


Polykala leadership session

Drinking juice seems like a strange way to amplify professional skills, but Gopal explains that its purpose is to cure the human fixation on always getting things right and doing so quickly. Participants are encouraged to slow down and really consider what’s making them jump straight to a specific flavour (the ‘think’).

“Experiential learning is no good if all you’ve been left with is an experience. You could go to Bali and have an experience, but so what? It’s about focusing attention on how you pay attention. We loop this into the professional landscape by asking, if you’re quick to the trigger in the work environment, and slow to the experience, what else are you missing?”

And there’s your last stage: the plan.

“Experiential learning is no good if all you’ve been left with is an experience. You could go to Bali and have an experience, but so what? It’s about focusing attention on how you pay attention.” – Ananth Gopal

Call to adventure

If you really want to immerse yourself in a left-of-field leadership experience, why not work with nomadic migration reindeer herders in the thick of the Mongolian winter? This is one of the programs offered as part of the Queensland government’s Advance Queensland initiative.

Ben Southall is Advance Queensland’s adventurer-in-residence and founder of Best Life Adventures, the company that facilitates the program. “If you’re tough enough to get through a physical challenge you thought you couldn’t do, it means you’re better placed to take on other challenges in the future,” he says.

Southall seems qualified for the job, having spent a year driving from London to Cape Town and setting a record by running nearly 550 kilometres of New Zealand’s famous walks in just nine days.

“We take entrepreneurs and corporate leaders out of their day-to-day lives, and put them together in a challenging and adventurous environment where they undertake pretty heavy physical activities,” says Southall.

He also runs mentoring sessions throughout the program, touching on the sore points of each person’s business.

Southall cites the case of Lachlan Young, a former coder for a tech company, who attended the New Zealand program.

“He wasn’t the fittest guy. He was used to sitting in front of a computer all the time. We’d been paddling for about six hours across a lake – it was the most beautiful location – and he made it to the end, almost fell out of the boat, sat down on the beach and said, ‘Thank god we’re done.’ I pointed over my shoulder at a mountain and said, ‘we’re climbing that now.’ He said, ‘There’s no f**king way I can do that!’ and then he flipped me off.”

After encouragement from Southall, Young took off up the mountain and made it to the top. After completing the program, he started going to the gym three times a week and got a new job. His whole life has turned around.

Young is what Kolb refers to as an ‘accommodator’ – someone who learns best when provided with a hands-on experience. They “explore complexity by interaction”.

Kolb identifies three other learning styles: divergers, convergers and assimilators. While they’re all slightly different in their learning approaches, they each favour logical theories and observing a wide collection of information.

These types of learners are the kind who will probably thrive in traditional leadership scenarios, so perhaps we shouldn’t do away with them all together. But it’s interesting to explore what’s available to the accommodators of the world.

“People who go on these adventures are much clearer of mind,” says Southall who could be described as an extreme accommodator. “In a new environment, they’re able to test themselves physically, emotionally, culturally, and they can generate a lot more brain juice. That’s the stuff that makes leaders more successful.”

Despite the benefits of getting out in nature, a trek into the unknown or a kayaking trip into the wild ocean will only work for those with an adventurous streak (and a generous budget).

The rest of us should perhaps just stick to sampling different flavours of juice.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the November 2018 edition of HRM Magazine.

Images: supplied.

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