March 2011 | 

Learning Better Leadership: Lessons in Unlikely Places

learning better leadership

Business leaders looking to up their game often turn to a likely source: other business leaders. But to really make significant, results-oriented advancements, you should look to some non-traditional examples that are rich with the kinds of lessons today’s leaders need most. "It's a common assumption," notes Wharton adjunct management professor Greg Shea, "that there’s a sole source of wisdom, and that’s the best practices in the business world. But while there are about 50 years of academic studies and hundreds of 'here's how I succeeded’ guides, some of the best examples of good and bad leadership are found elsewhere."

"Part of the problem of studying business cases is that there’s a tendency to try to cross-stitch between the business that is being portrayed and your own business. There are often very specific references that can complicate a basic lesson, making it idiosyncratic instead of universal. It’s important to be able to get out from under those organizational examples and develop a lens to look at leadership with a wider perspective."

Developing a Wider Leadership Lens

Shea, along with Wharton management professor Mike Useem, teaches executives to develop that lens over the course of a week in The Leadership Journey: Creating and Developing Your Leadership. "Montana’s Mann Gulch fire and the rescue of Apollo 13 are great non-traditional examples. Study the stories behind these events, and you'll find compelling leadership lessons. Most leadership curriculum doesn't include Shakespeare, but we spend a day on Henry V because it’s a remarkable tale that includes many best practices. The play illustrates the connection between leader and follower and how to maintain that relationship, as well as how to make hard choices."

Henry V allows executives to isolate the lessons by removing them from a business context. Shea explains, "I don't think very many people get lost in the specifics. How many business leaders have to decide whether to invade France? But within the play, you get a profound example of how to mobilize, and how to lead in adversity."

He continues, "Since few people have been to the Antarctic, we can study the dynamics between leaders and followers through the Shackleton story without spending time figuring why one person's business is different from Shackleton's. The explorer was marooned with his crew for over two years. No one mutinied, and everybody came home alive. How do you maintain the leader-follower connection under such extreme adversity? To see how that works, under incredibly stressful circumstances, is a powerful lesson."

Leadership Moments: Three Key Elements

Ultimately, though, Shea and Useem guide participants in The Leadership Journey to develop a lens to find these leadership lessons themselves. They stress that "leadership moments" evolve from three elements:

  1. The role of the leader, who by definition must have willing followers;
  2. Who you are and what you bring to a situation; and
  3. The particular demands of a situation.

One situation may call for being provocative, another for being supportive, while yet another for turning your leadership over to somebody else, saying "I support you in doing this because you can do this better than I can — we’ll follow you."

"Leaders must be able to take a step back and evaluate these elements. What does the situation require, and what are your abilities? In some cases, as it was with Shackleton, the situation may call for a skill you don't have. It's a time where you should look around to determine who you should support. In other cases, you may need to organize the group and play sheriff. But you can't get to that place unless you have perspective on leadership, on yourself, and on the specific situational demands. Without that perspective, you're likely to get lost in the demands of the situation, the demands of your position, or in your personal issues."