Aspects of leadership: An action-learning experiment

November 22, 2007

An action learning experiment was carried out by group of senior officers following the principles of Reg Revans. Four teams were assembled, and examined four recent leadership cases

According to action learning pioneer, Reg Revans, the most powerful learning is profoundly embedded in sharing experiences, which can be achieved within action learning sets or groups.

In an earlier post, this was explained as follows:

The learning context must be a real working/project. Scheduled input of theory knowledge /lectures should be kept to a minimum and more time provided for workshops, meetings and questions. An independent adviser needs to be present to facilitate, help or guide when needed. An atmosphere is of openness to confronting sensitive internal issues and flexibility in terms of scheduling

In this application, the action learning sets were assembled from officers of the British armed services, all of whom were making the transition into non-military careers on a senior executive programme within a international Business School.

The Cases

Case one
O’ Neal (Merrill Lynch)
O’Neill credited with firm’s growth and success in past
Recent financial down-turn also placed at his door
‘Tipping point’ action (strategic discussions with Wachovia)
Very lucrative ‘amicable’ parting

Case two
The simple sailor (Admiral West)
West is newcomer to high-profile political role
‘Critical incident’ (He seems to reverse a decision unconvincingly)
Realpolitik versus duty?
Story simplifies and discards ‘inconvenient’ evidence of career success

Case three
Charles (Chuck) Prince (Citigroup)
Was Prince a formerly successful leader who ‘lost it’ (c.f. O’ Neal)?
His removal seems connected with embarrassing write-downs of third quarter (sub-prime losses)
Board emphasizes continuity of strategy, but with a new leader
Leader departs with honor and ceremonial gifts

Case four
Bob Nardelli (Home Depot;Chrysler)
Nardelli fired from Home Depot partly through leadership style
‘Difficult but not a ‘simple’ former American Footballer
Private equity firm (Cerberus) needs ‘tough-minded leader’ at Chrysler
Is Nardelli the right sort of leader for the job?

Leadership issues

The cases have some commonalities. Three of the four support the common perception that leaders are expected to make a significant difference to their organizations. (Case two did not disprove it, either).

All cases indicate the way in which a leader acts takes on symbolic significance to others. This is an important aspect in the new leadership model since the 1980s.

The symbolic story becomes transmitted through media and other story-makers and purveyors. Each story has its heroes, villains, crises, battles, and acts of individual valour or foolishness.

The cases also add credence to notions of leadership as being highly situational. However, they leave unanswered the question of whether the same leader willl be equally effective in different circumstances.

Leadership questions

The four action-learning sets shared their discussion findings. It would be consistent with action learning principles to treat the learning process as being mainly relevant to those within each group, drawing on their own experiences. However, it also seems consistent to report findings, providing further questions for subsequent study.

The discussions touched on situational leadership raising a point found in Machiavelli’s writings:Can you be a tough leader (and implement job cuts) and then lead the reshaped organization?
[Compare the situation with a military commander who has had to carry through a campaign that accepted major casualties in action.]

Is a ‘poor’ style usually accepted when the going is good?

Where should the buck stop in political affairs?
[Should we take a view of leadership as more distributed than hierarchical?]

Is moral courage a handicap in environments where short-termism is prominent?

The EMR concept

Discussions also resulted in an elegant three-word summary of which can be seen as the start of a simple but powerful framework for examining contemporary leadership cases. The habitual response of an academic is to give an idea a name, and mess about with it so that it looks more like a framework or model.

I will avoid the temptation (for the moment) of drawing double headed arrows, boxes, or Venn diagrams, reporting only the three elements suggested by one action learning set as capturing the main elements which permit an examination of contemporary leadership cases:



The post was prepared from materials provided in advance of the workshop, and completed following the presentations of the four action-learning teams