Action learning and leadership

November 30, 2008
MBS Harold Hankins Building

MBS Harold Hankins Building

An inaugural event took place on Nov 26th 2008 at Manchester Business School to celebrate plans for closer links between the regional action learning community and the Reg Revans foundation. The issues discussed show connections between action learning and the processes of creative leadership

Leaders we deserve had an invitation to participate at the event, but managed to miss significant chunks of it. This is therefore in the nature of a personal view. A more detailed commentary can be found on the Revans Academy web-site.

My fragmentary experience suggested a considerable overlap between the processes of creative leadership and action learning.

Power and influence

Kiran Treharn, co-editor of Action Learning: Research and Practice, made a convincing case for the need for a more critical examination of power and influence forces operating within action learning sets. From outside of that community I would extend the point to other types of work group.

For example, research colleagues Susan Moger, Abdullah Al-Bereidi and Ming-Huei Chen have been examining the dynamics of MBA project teams over a period of more than a decade. The research has been reported elsewhere, and I will confine my remarks here to its findings.

Our results suggest that even after a shared training and instructional experience, some groups are more successful than others in avoiding the problems of status and dysfuntional behaviours. This finding challenges a piece of conventional wisdom, namely that teams follow a universal path through the hallowed stages laid down by Bruce Tuckman: form, storm, norm, perform …

Our view, based on a considerable body of evidence, is that a range of factors influence the success of groups we have worked with. We believe that a team’s success is partly determined by supportive (‘creative’) team leadership, and partly by team factors such as willingness to espouse new ideas, and resilience in the face of difficulties.

At the Revans event, Mike Pedler’s contribution suggested that the practice of action learning sets may also be encountering various ‘contingent’ factors influencing success and failure.

The magic number six

Another area which struck me as worthy of a reflective critique, is group size. Action learning practitioners seem to have settled for a standard size of learning set. The reverence for a constant group size across different contexts seems worthy of more challenge than it may be receiving. The mystical significance of the number six may be minimising experience with other sizes of set.

I seem to recall that the quality movement also circled around the magic number six, and Belbin team role enthusiasts favour a rather similar group size to accommodate eight or nine team roles including two leadership styles.

Research on brainstorming suggests that ideational productivity drops off with groups larger than six. Earlier, its pioneer Alex Osborn took a more ‘whatever it takes’ approach, to overcome what he saw at the destructive impact of status differentials in business meetings.

The size of a project team, (and public sector boards) are often far removed from the magic number six.. Size is largely determined by the scale, complexity, and inter-dependencies of the tasks which tend to result in chunking into smaller team units. It should also be noted that even if custom and practice of small-group work points to the benefits to a ‘set’ of a membership of six, we are moving to an era of more virtual teams.

Worker bees have always able to construct marvellous hexagonal structures for their hives, a determined outcome of the geometrics of form. But need we be quite so locked into a neo-Darwinian functionalism in our preference for six as an ideal size for small group activities?

Damien Green and the pressures of leadership

November 29, 2008

Damien Green

The arrest of shadow minister Damien Green over an investigation into information leaks is a story demonstrating the dilemmas of leadership, not just for Mr Green, but for a number of others who have become involved, in and beyond Westminster

Damien Green, Conservative shadow minister was arrested by police, held for nine hours, and subsequently was released on bail. The nub of the story seems to be that The Home Office had involved the police over the matter of a series of leaks of information. A civil servant within the Home Office had been identified and is currently under investigation. Damien Green was interviewed ‘in connection with the leaks’

The political realities

It is highly unusual for MPs to be treated by police in this fashion. Cue for a supply of further stories for the media, supplied by various parties:

Damien Green quickly gave an interview indicating the facts of his arrest, and the subsequent police actions at his home and office premises. You can find more background on the breaking story [Friday Nov 28th 2008] in the BBC analysis in Q&A form

Very quickly, David Cameron expressed his anger
Boris Johnson expressed his anger.
George Osborne expressed his anger.
Later, Nick Clegg expressed his anger

The various expressions of anger indicated suspicion that the Government had been thoroughly involved in stitching up Damien Green. The justification for involvement of terrorist branch police officers was also challenged.

Government denials of all accusations followed. Explanations for involvement of such officers also followed. Boris had seen it as outrageous. The police indicated that the leaks contained information relevant to terrorist investigations.

It seems that David Cameron, and Boris Johnson were among those who learned of the case before members of the Government. Which was something else they found rather fishy.

George Osborne’s intervention is made in the context of a totally different breaking story involving a member of his family. The only newsworthy aspect of this is the family connection with the shadow chancellor.

Quote from a BBC five live radio interview by a former police officer: ‘No one in his right mind would assume that Damien Green would be guilty of offenses justifying the ‘over the top behaviour’ (sic) of the Met Police’.

The dilemmas of leadership

The story seems to capture some of the dilemmas of leadership in reaching decisions in a ‘high velocity’ situation. Both David Cameron and Damien Green had to act swiftly and provide a coherent and defensible account of what was going on. The Home Secretary, and Prime Minister had to be more reactive; Boris Johnson and George Osborne seem to have had more choice of speaking up or maintaining silence. The story indicates how analysis has to take multiple perspectives into account.

It occurred to me that it would make a nice exercise if someone set up a ‘hypotheticals’ debate, with experienced people playing the roles of the various protagonists, each indicating what he or she made of it from their perspective, and what would they do next.

More information emerged

More information emerged in an interview later in the day by Sir David Normington, the top civil servant at the Home Office, who told the BBC that he had involved the police because of

“leaks of sensitive information over an extended period [which] risked undermining the effective operation of my department .. The police investigation led to a junior member of the Home Office being arrested on 19 November and subsequently suspended from duty. Yesterday (Thursday), I was informed by the Metropolitan Police at about 1.45pm that a search was about to be conducted of the home and offices of a member of the Opposition front bench. I was subsequently told that an arrest had been made. Ministers were not involved in the decision to seek police assistance or in the subsequent investigation and were only told of the arrest after it had occurred.”

What’s going on?

A yet-to-be resolved story. That’s what’s going on. The outcome will tell us more about the political skills of some of the main actors when faced with the pressures of taking decisions under pressure. I would be interested to learn more about the way in which David Cameron and Boris learned of the information, who learned what and when on the Government side, and what happened subsequently. What emerges may indicate who has made the wisest political decisions to date.

A touch of irony?

I noticed one additional ironic turn to the story. Damien Green stoutly defends the rights of MPs to reveal information in the public interest. One aspect of his indignation is that MPs are so rarely treated by police in such a public fashion over matters of revealing information. That is so. The reason is an absence of the very transparency of information within the political system which grants MPs rights and privileges.

David Bellion and Alex Ferguson’s leadership style

November 26, 2008

David Bellion remembers positively his time with Manchester United, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership style

The leadership story was covered in a BBC link sent me by Susan Moger (thanks, Susan).

He is remembered at Manchester United as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s least successful buys, and at West Ham he was so unwanted he “felt like a ghost”. But it is clear from talking to Bordeaux striker David Bellion ahead of Wednesday’s crunch Champions League match [that he remembers his time in England positively].

Bellion remains an avid watcher of Premier League football but there are few in this country who have followed his progress since he left United.

One notable exception, however, is United manager Ferguson, who sent him a letter telling him to “keep going” during his time at Nice and who has since phoned the forward to offer similar encouragement.
“Those are the kind of things that make a great manager and maybe a great man,” enthused Bellion, who still refers to Ferguson as his “gaffer”.
“He is class – a gentleman. To some coaches, when you leave their club you are gone completely but he looks out for all the players who have been with him.
“For me, to receive that letter after a small spell at United was a great honour for me. It maybe means nothing to him but it means a lot for me – he had not forgotten me.”

More than a hair-drier

Furguson is sterotyped as a successful manager famous for a ‘hair-drier’ almost bullying style. His leadership stle is obviously more complex than that.

Obama, vision and reality

November 25, 2008


In fairy tales there is often a point at which a spell is broken. Cinderella has to leave the ball. Like many others, I was caught up in the new fairy story of Barack Obama. Now I am receiving those signals warning that the every fantasy coach has the potential of turning back into a pumpkin


The original post was written in November 2008 as a counter-balance to the enormously high expectations set upon the newly elected President. It is now possible to take the wider picture and examine the post in light of the President’s first hundred days in power.

After the honeymoon, the complexities of his role and the tasks facing his administration quickly became clear in foreign and domestic fronts.

Original post follows

It helps bring some balance to the perspective of Mr Obama as an outstanding political figure, a breathtaking orator, if we also recognise him as a human being, facing the dilemmas which confront every leader.

Rahn Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel was written up as The Attack Dog

Described by those who know him as variously an attack dog, warrior, political gangster – the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Barack Obama’s chief of staff has sent a shiver of unease through Republicans hoping for a new spirit of conciliation under the newly-elected president.

Then there was Timothy Geithner

More consistent with Obama’s inclusive style was the appointment of
Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, a move largely acclaimed.

Now there’s Hilary.

The media were writing headlines well in advance of the appointment of Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State

The combative, feisty, Hilary who nearly nailed Obama in the democratic run-offs. The Hilary with both helps and hindrances gifted by husband Bill to her career prospects. In fantasy land, Hilary was the wicked witch to be defeated and cast into outer darkness. Banished from the kingdom, as rewards go to those who fought the good fight. But now she seems to be rewarded despite her campaign. Come to think of it, husband Bill lost his cool at one point in the campaign warning the electorate that Barack Obama was creating a fantasy world.

What’s going on?

Harvard Business Review, (admittedly synopticised by Business Week) spots the implication of the decision to appoint such a confrontational figure as Emanuel. They took the view that every leader with inclinations towards a generosity of spirit should have an attack dog to do the dirty work. The following misses one additional factor, that of total loyalty to the leader.

Obama radiates a cool, steady calmness. Watching him from afar, you cannot imagine him coming down hard on people to get things done; this is not his style and he knows it. That’s why he chose as his chief of staff a man who loves to “win.” Brash, bold and abrasive, Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton White House aide, is opposite of Obama’s cool; he’s fire and passion backed with relentless drive. For someone of Obama’s temperament, Emanuel is an ideal chief of staff, a job that H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s chief of staff, viewed as being the “president’s S.O.B.” Emanuel’s selection demonstrates how leaders need to surround themselves with people who complement them, not replicate them.

How to make sense of all this?

These issues may be uncomfortable for the millions who bought into the oratory of Obama, with its messages of hope and change. But now, perhaps, we have to be prepared to let go of some of the fantasy. America has elected a President who does bring hope for change a remarkable set of unrivalled leadership skills. But the charisma must not blind us from the otherwise obvious: that he is a human being, nevertheless who will wrestle with the realities of political power in a democratic society, and with the dilemmas of leadership.

There are strong indictions that charismatic power may well have helped Obama’s rise to office, but that the realities of leadership require explaining in other ways such as a distribution of roles (distributed leadership), including some good ol’ fashioned situational leadership opportunities, and more than a touch of accomodation. I’m inclined to see the appointment of Hilary Clinton as an indicator of creative leadership, and a willingness to find imaginative approaches which turn ‘threats into opportunities’

For students of leadership:

Students of leadership may be interested in an examination of how Barack Obama’s oratory works its magic.

Creative leadership network

November 24, 2008
Tudor Rickards (Malta 2000)

Tudor Rickards (Malta 2000)

An international network has developed of associates and former doctoral students of Manchester Business School researching creativity and leadership. Leaders we deserve welcomes comments for improving and updating this resource

Origins of this post

Tudor Rickards initiated this post after a similar list was consided to be inappropriate for inclusion in a wikipedia article.

Manchester Business School Research Alumni

Abdulla Al-Bereidi has studied creativity in Saudi Arabian organizations

Simon Aldridge (d. 2007) pursued his interests in creativity in complex social systems such as the National Health Service.

Ming-Huei Chen collaborated on the two-barrier model of team development, and on the validation of its team factor inventory. She has also researched creativity of entrepreneurs in Taiwan, and team creativity

Christian de Cock has developed a post-structural approach to studies of creativity.

Fernando Gimenez has examined the strategic decision-making of Brazilian entrepreneurs

Julie Hass researched a creative climate inventory and extended the work into
sustainability auditing.

Frederick Hsu has studied modes of rationality in strategic decision-making

Faisal Q Khokhar has researched leadership and entrepreneurship in Pakistan

Susan Moger has specialized in creativity in networks and in creative leadership. Susan was founder editor of Creativity and Innovation Management.

Zain Mohammed applied Ekvall’s creative climate scale to organizations in Malaysia.

Tony Proctor has studied and published on creative problem-solving

Nathan Proudlove researches group decision factors

Hernan Riquelme has studied decision processes of venture capitalists, creative imagery, and Herbert Simon’s cognitive model of creativity


The image was freely provided [Nov 2008] by Tudor Rickards from his personal collection for Leaders we deserve and is a copy of an original commissioned by Dr Sandra Dingli of the University of Malta at the Conference on creativity, Malta, 2000, and which has appeared on the University of Malta and other websites subsequently.

Leadership behind the headlines: Strictly come dancing

November 23, 2008
”]Strictly come dancing [wikipedia]

Some headlines conceal hidden leadership stories. Leaders we deserve takes a look at strictly come dancing and The John Sergeant drama

A fair proportion of Britain (or maybe England) paused from its recessionary gloom and became preoccupied this week [Nov 17-18 2008 particularly] with the televised drama of John Sergeant, a former News reporter, and participant in a hugely popular entertainment show, strictly come dancing.

This is one of a genre in which viewers vote to keep or kick-off the wannabe celebrities, who then go on to the celebrity circuit with differing degrees of success. The show has a panel of judges, and is hosted by Bruce Forsyth, a doyen of British television light entertainment, still high-kicking his way around the set. The contestants deliver their various dances with professional partners, who are in a way the jockeys, putting the nags through their paces. The judges are the pantomime baddies, whose interventions are greeted with boos and hisses from the audience.

The series has been growing in popularity, as the programmers worked out the best scripts to engage the audience. The judges became increasingly aggressive; the format more ritualised and more popular.

I have no clear memory of earlier shows, but this series seems to have triggered a particular response.

The more the baddies tried to dish Sergeant, the louder the boos. And the more the public mobilised votes to see their favourite (Boots, Cinderella, Goldilocks, Peter Pan …) survive against their dastardly plans of the Ugly sisters, Captain Hook, or Cruella Vilejudge.

Then as the pantomime advanced to the inevitable happy ending, Seargent produces a bombshell. Says he is quitting the show, as he had come to realise there was a distinct chance he could win despite turning in by far the worse technical performances. Cries of dismay from millions of viewers. BBC offers to pay back costs of phone-calls by distraught viewers. Seargent is hauled before the grand inquisitor Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight to explain himself.

Why was Sergeant so popular? Partly because of a brilliant piece of casting as the downtrodden pantomime hero or heroine. Partly because of the interesting dynamics of the programme which we discussed in an earlier blog.

Why did an audience of eleven million people and more watch in the weeks building up to an unexpected and dramatic end to the story? Why did it become a brief national obsession? During the peak of the story [19th Nov 2008] I found nearly 2000 news stories about it. Roughly twice as many stories as the medical breakthrough to produce the first organ transplant (a windpipe) using stem-cell technology.

The popular view seems to be that the programmes’s success is something about the Great British Public not wanting to be bullied by those nasty judges. Which is puzzling in that a core feature of the program is all audience participation in an exercise in mock bullying.

Reg Revans. Lest I forget

November 22, 2008


Some years ago, when giants stalked the land, I tracked Reg Revans down to his lair. I wanted to see whether he could be persuaded of the fact that Action Learning and Manchester Business School might have a shared future. The meeting was not a total success

Reg, with what I now believe to be typical bluntness, explained his beliefs about the irredeemable wrong-headedness of Business Schools in general, and Manchester Business School in particular.

I had been warned that there was a history of missed opportunities for rapprochement from the time of the School’s inception in the 1960s. He did not dwell so much on that, as on the folly of trying to achieve effective management education using traditional pedagogic approaches.

We talked for a few hours. Or, to be more precise, I suspect I listened for most of the time. I can not date the meeting particularly well, but it was most likely to have taken place in the late 1970s or early 1980s. My big idea was that if Reg Revans had not been accepted at Manchester Business School, then he must have been misunderstood. Everything I had heard and read about his action learning approach made it utterly compatible with ideas that were bubbling up in the School at the time. He was spoken of with some reverence by senior figures there, such as John Morris, and also by emerging junior faculty. Surely when I explained, he would see how John’s ideas of joint development activities were close to the work of the burgeoning Action Learning community? And anyway, he would be bound to warm to efforts I was making at the time to introduce creative problem-solving into projects within the MBA curriculum. He would see how the Manchester Experiment (and subsequently The Manchester Method) were far closer to Action Learning than they were to the traditional Business School curriculum.

As far as I could remember, after a frosty start, the emotional climate of the meeting warmed up, but not a great deal. If I had come bearing an olive branch, I seemed to have stuck it right up the nose of the great man. I doubt if he ever set foot in Manchester Business School thereafter.

Time passes

Time passes. Reg Revans completes a fulfilled and long life. With one of those ironic turns, The Revans Institute elects to accept an invitation to make its home at Manchester Business School.

At the introductory event [26th Nov 2008], I was invited to share a concluding session with Mike Pedler. Another irony. Mike had been one of those figures who first enthused me about the potential of Action Learning, all those years ago.