January 2013 | 

What It Takes to Be a Leader


Technical experts spend much of their careers in positions of authority; with knowledge comes power. But what happens when they move into broader leadership roles? Jeff Klein, director of Wharton’s Graduate Leadership Program, notes that they need to build on their strengths, learning and employing the skills required for their new position. “It’s important for these leaders to recognize that their expertise gave them a certain kind of authority that can’t — and shouldn’t — be expected to be sustained in their new role. There’s a different skill set that they’ll need, and it’s not easy on the job to acquire those skills.”

Klein is learning director of Wharton’s The Leadership Edge: Strategies for the New Leader program, which was designed for leaders transitioning into their new roles. “It doesn’t matter whether those leaders are Navy SEALs, software entrepreneurs, or government researchers. They all have strong technical backgrounds that they need to build on. It’s a classic leadership challenge that’s not confined to the business world. In fact, one of the strengths of the program is the diversity of the participants. They come from a variety of backgrounds bringing a variety of perspectives that helps them build a more comprehensive view of their role as leader.”

A Navy SEAL who recently attended the program adds, “Exposure to corporate leaders provided me with unique insights. It deepened the value of the program by giving me and the other SEALs a broader understanding of what a leader is and how other organizations deal with challenges.”

As Klein explains, The Leadership Edge addresses and develops skills at four levels: interpersonal, team, organization, and wider network. And the program is taught by the same faculty who teach in Wharton’s MBA program, including Nancy Rothbard (faculty director), Sigal Barsade, and Ethan Mollick. “At the interpersonal level, we look at some of the significant obstacles to effective leadership, including strategic communication. Are you able to get your message across in a way that others hear and are influenced by? How do you handle difficult conversations? Do you manage your own emotions to facilitate positive decision-making, and can you read the emotions of others as a source of vital information?”

The focus then shifts to teams. “Leading a high-performing team involves selecting the right members, getting aligned as a group, and then creating a culture of learning so the team’s knowledge and skills evolve over time.” Klein continues, “We discuss some of the research and the participants’ experiences on teams. They spend a day working in teams on a leadership challenge. The teams have to set a goal, create a strategy to achieve it, and figure out how to compete or cooperate with the other teams. After the challenge, John Kanengieter, who teaches leadership and teamwork to NASA astronauts, works with them on After Action Reviews [AARs] to capture the learning from the experience.”

One of the Navy SEALs in the program explains: “The value of proper debriefing through AARs was one of the major takeaways from the program. Various other methods for successful debriefs were also highlighted by the instructors, including Critical Incident Stress Debriefing [CISD]. The CISD is a very simple and direct discussion following a high-stress or traumatic incident. Clearly, this has direct application to the operations and incidents faced by leaders within our group, but it is also useful for executives.”

From teams, The Leadership Edge moves to consider the organization and wider networks. Klein stresses, “When you can take a step back and analyze your culture, you can play a more significant role within it and as a shaper of it.” He also notes that new leaders need to grow and use their own networks, both in and out of their organizations, to be successful. “Getting a perspective on leadership from these different levels helps the participants to build an expanded framework for their new role. Through these varied approaches, they can continue to learn with their teams, test their effectiveness, and self-correct. Whether you’re new to leadership in a company, a government agency, or the military, it makes sense to create an opportunity to step back and hone your capabilities. Trying to learn on-the-job, as-you-go, without that kind of opportunity, is more difficult.”