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Using the clinical approach for leadership development

By Professor Jack Denfeld Wood - March 2011

Leadership is an essential element—perhaps the essential element—of effective management. Exercising leadership responsibly requires more than just providing a vision, communicating it effectively, mobilizing others to follow, guiding the collective progress and being aware of the obstacles in your path. It also requires deep awareness of both the conscious rational and unconscious emotional elements in individual and collective behavior.

Virtually all management and business schools have classes in leadership. These classes are taught by professors who lecture, discuss cases and show videos of “great leaders” and the basic message boils down to an exhortation to behave in a similar manner. There is a problem with this kind of teaching. It doesn’t work.

Showing videos and lecturing about great leaders misses the point. Knowledgeable spectators who instruct others about World Cup football — or leadership — might be able to identify the best players and what makes them the great; but this does not help make them — or the people they instruct — either World Class football players or World Class leaders.

Most business schools, and business school professors, are inadequately prepared to work in a manner and at a level of sufficient depth to address the reality of leading. Executives who attend such classes are inadequately prepared to develop their capacity to exercise leadership. Virtually all business school leadership classes develop the skill to talk about leading, but not the skill to exercise leadership.

Meaningful leadership development requires a deeper and more fundamental approach. Even those training centres focussing on leadership development with “experiential” approaches do not adequately work with the difficult unconscious and emotional forces with which it is necessary to work. Effective leadership development requires a ‘clinical’ approach which provides a safe place for the investigation and integration of the naturally occurring patterns of individual, group and organisational behaviour. The aim is the identification, understanding and management of the multiple forces that motivate individual and collective behaviour. The clinical approach’s focus is on the richness of our humanity in all its irrational and emotional complexity and involves addressing situations without an excessive reliance on prescribed procedure and technique, or simple “engineering” solutions.

IMD’s clinical approach to leadership is embedded in the two flagship programs for young managers, both of which include a “Leadership Stream” — the MBA and the high potential BOT (Building on Talent) program, as well as the mid-level Mobilizing People leadership program.

The Leadership Stream is designed for participants to build upon and integrate their past life experience, their current situations and their future aspirations. Participants will build from their Personal and Professional Identity Narrative (PPIN) — a working autobiography that they prepare before arriving to IMD, and which they revise during the program, in collaboration with group and individual feedback and personal behavioral leadership consultation. Leadership Stream participants learn about themselves from high intensity outdoor leadership exercises — derived from officer selection exercises the German Wehrmacht pioneered between the wars, and which the British and Dutch still use — written assignments about their own group dynamics and private sessions with their own behavioral consultant — a psychological professional familiar with business as well as individual and collective social and psychological dynamics. This is not simply “coaching”— it is much more. [1]

For MBA participants, the opportunity is available to deepen their self-awareness further through an elective comprising 20 hours of in-depth work with a qualified psychoanalyst.

The following seven points highlight the clinical approach of IMD’s high intensity Leadership Streams.

1. What makes us tick?
Individuals and groups are not simply manipulated by surface rewards and punishments deemed by others to be motivating. Parents, teachers and managers who routinely apply prescribed procedures to control their children, students and employees eventually learn the limits of trying to engineer others behavior. Covert unconscious forces play a central role in determining individual collective motivation and ultimate behavior. Learning to recognize, understand and work with these unconscious influences is the only way to avoid being inadvertently surprised, disturbed or unwittingly captured and controlled by them.

2. Learning to lead.
Leadership can’t be taught, but the capacity to exercise leadership can be developed — less from academic study and imitation than from the experience of learning to lead and follow. Meaningful behavioral learning occurs only as a result of a strongly felt need and a deep personal commitment. It is impossible to coerce somebody into leading. It would be equally impossible to develop leadership if individuals were not truly allowed to be curious, experiment and make mistakes — i.e., if they were prevented from taking the lead in their own development.

3. The value of self-reflection.
The clinical approach encourages executives to reflect as they act, to develop what one might call reflective spontaneity — the capacity to be authentically oneself, and to use one’s experience as data while engaged in action. To do so, we provide a psychological space where one can explore and experiment in a relatively safe environment. One can learn, for example, that difficult feelings might not be as harmful as we often believe — on the contrary — they provide us with invaluable information to understand the covert influences that are operating in our groups and in ourselves. We measure success by the capacity to let ourselves experience, and then make sense of an increasingly full range of behaviours, thoughts and feelings — without judgement.

4. Use of theories.
The clinical approach is more ‘pragmatic’ and ‘descriptive’ than it is normative and prescriptive. Rather than state ‘this is what you should do,’ it suggests that ‘this is how to understand what is happening, and here are some choices about what you might consider doing and the likely outcome.’ It uses whatever theory in a given case might provide a reasonable framework for understanding the meaning of people’s actions, so that one can choose how to act — or whether to act at all.

5. Learning methods — working with your experience not lectures and questionnaires.
Our clinical approach does not rely on inspiring stories or the emulation of celebrity executives for reassurance and comfort. Rather than practicing new behaviors and acquiring tools to “control things”, executives are encouraged to be themselves, experience what is happening and reflect upon the complex and conflicting emotions that they usually avoid looking at in themselves, and in others. Role plays and experiential activities are not used to demonstrate proficiency in imitating ‘this is how you can do it right’ but as data collection opportunities for later reflection on ‘this is how you do it, let’s consider the helpful and not so helpful elements of it.’ The more naturally and spontaneously participants behave, the more learning material emerges. However, this is not a prescription for correct behavior. Reluctance and defensiveness are as natural and spontaneous as are openness and enthusiasm — and maybe even more common. As long as one is willing to explore what provokes one’s behavior, one can learn from the program and further one’s leadership development.

6. Faculty attitude — open and engaged.
Our clinical approach strives to bring the unconscious back into play in the corporate classroom in an effort to enhance the relevance, depth and meaning of leadership education. The clinical approach is centred on clients — not models — and it does not assume that the faculty knows best what managers should know in order to exercise leadership. Clinically minded management faculty are behavioral professionals who tend to be more curious about what participants will learn within the context provided. The approach fosters collaboration and interdependence between participant and faculty in the enterprise of learning. The faculty provide the framework to learn, but it is the participants who remain firmly in charge of the pace and depth of their learning.

7. Managers’ reactions.
Unlike those exposed only to the engineering approach, who often move from enthusiasm to disappointment when they get home and try to apply the abstract models and techniques, participants in a clinical program usually go through a different sequence of learning — from an initial mixture of anxiety, suspicion and impatience with the faculty for lack of normative models, directive teaching and clear-cut solutions, through a feeling of relief for not having to ‘fake it’ anymore, to the realization that they are already equipped to exercise leadership responsibly and wisely, and already have a sense of how to lead others in ways that increase the health and foster the growth of all concerned.

Jack Denfeld Wood is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. He is responsible for the IMD MBA and BOT Leadership Stream.

Material for this article is drawn from, “Learning for Leadership: The “Engineering” and “Clinical” Approaches” Petriglieri, G. Wood, J.D., in: Strebel, P. and Keys, T. (Eds.) Mastering Executive Education: How to Combine Content with Context and Emotion, The IMD Guide. London: Financial Times-Prentice Hall, 2005.

[1] “On Coaches, Counsellors, Facilitators and Behavioural Consultants”. Wood, J.D. Petriglieri, G., in Strebel, P. and Keys, T. (Eds.) Mastering Executive Education: How to Combine Content with Context and Emotion, The IMD Guide. London: Financial Times-Prentice Hall, 2005.

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