June 2012 | 

From High Potential to High Achievement

high potentials

“It’s not good enough to have a set of skills that you apply to every situation,” notes Todd Henshaw, former director of West Point's leadership and management programs. “Today’s leaders must be adaptable.” Sigal Barsade, Wharton management professor and faculty director of High-Potential Leaders: Accelerating Your Impact, agrees. “Style isn’t something you choose and then stick with. You need to adapt. When you walk into a situation, you need to assess it, understand the culture, and be deliberate about the type of leadership that’s required.”

Barsade, a leading expert on emotional intelligence, stresses that developing the necessary adaptability begins with perspective. If you’re not able to read people and understand where they are coming from, your ability to lead them is diminished. “One of the primary tasks of leadership is to get a large group to be on the same page. A team must understand, appreciate, and feel the vision and values of the group. This can’t be done this with cognition alone — there is an emotional tenor involved.”

“Emotions are information,” Barsade continues. “If you are only cognitive, you’re operating with one hand tied behind your back. When you understand how others feel, you know how they think and how they will behave. That knowledge can make you a highly effective leader because you can use it to shape the best behavior for the situation. It’s a much more proactive approach.”

Becoming more perceptive takes work, though. Most of us make quick judgments without even recognizing that we’re doing it, and those judgments color our interactions with and perception of others. In High-Potential Leaders, Barsade uses fine art to fine-tune executives’ skills. “The exercise involves describing what is going on in a painting without making judgments. Typically we’ll hear, ‘There’s an old man,’ or ‘That’s a wealthy woman.’ Those are the kinds of judgments we make all the time, but how do you know they’re correct? It’s hard to stop your mind from filling in missing information with judgments, but when you’re doing it, you’re handicapping yourself. You’re not open to information.”

Instead, Barsade asks participants to focus on emotional expression. What cues and signals are being given? “Becoming skilled at reading emotion improves leadership capabilities. The same approach won’t work with each individual, so it’s important to assess what’s really going on with someone in order to get the best from them.”

Monica McGrath, who leads unique integration sessions in the program, adds, “Learning that takes place out of the classroom provides a new frame of reference and provokes more connections. I see participants applying what they’re learning directly to their leadership goals. They see the difference between observing what is happening and interpreting it, and they understand what they need to do to improve.”

Henshaw agrees. “It really helps to augment classroom learning with some experiential learning. In our Normandy program, The Normandy Leadership Experience, we immerse executives in one of history’s critical leadership tests at the sites at which it happened. Testing new skills and observing yourself out of your comfort zone — as the High-Potential program does in an art museum, an organizational change simulation, negotiation practice sessions, and integration sessions — is very helpful to practicing adaptability, which is critical in a rapidly changing world with high levels of uncertainty.”