December 2014 | 

For Leadership Development, One Size Doesn’t Fit All

one size does not fit all

When Marsha Kay, MD, came to Wharton recently, she already had some experience with leadership training. Some of it, she says, wasn’t very helpful for her. “You can’t try to adopt ‘six characteristics’ or follow someone’s ‘formula.’ Leadership is not black and white. I appreciated the approach of The Leadership Journey because it is built on the assumption that there is no one perfect, ideal leader. You need to identify your own strengths, play to them, and then develop more. What works for one person in one situation won’t necessarily work for someone else.”

The week-long program is led by Wharton management professors Mike Useem and Greg Shea, who create a dynamic learning environment designed to make an indelible impression on the executives who attend. “Most people in leadership roles find too little time for reflection,” says Useem. “Their organizations often don’t encourage it, and many don’t make time for it. Our program provides an opportunity to take a step back to think about what is working for them and how they want to further strengthen their own leadership and that of their team.”

Kay, who chairs the Pediatric Gastroenterology department at the Cleveland Clinic, says the program was a “personal reboot” that reinvigorated her interest in leadership. “It gets you thinking about things in different ways. You see strategies of effective leaders, and of those who are less effective. Then you look at your own leadership and what works and what doesn’t. You get to take a step back and analyze why certain strategies were not effective in specific situations.”

The leaders studied in the program are surprising to some, but the deep dive into their successful approaches creates important memories for the executives in attendance. A full afternoon is devoted to an interactive exploration of Shakespeare’s Henry V, and on another day the program moves to a Civil War battlefield in nearby Gettysburg, where Union commanders turned the course of the war in their favor. Useem explains, “Spending an afternoon on the leadership of King Henry V during a turning point in England’s history or a day on the leadership of Civil War generals when they met on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania can serve as a compelling reminder of what really makes a difference when leadership is on the line. We work to create gripping experiences that bring out and make indelible what is required for decisive leadership when it really makes a difference.”

For Kay, The Leadership Journey has already had an effect. “The program has been extraordinarily helpful. I’m trying to become much more flexible. One strategy may work well one day, but not the next. You have to be willing to adapt. I am also working on sitting back more and letting other people have a voice. Creative ideas can come from anyone, so you need to let the strict agenda go and keep your eyes and ears open.”

While leaders in every industry can greatly benefit from development programs, transformations in medicine are creating stronger needs for those in medicine. “Medicine is undergoing big changes from a business standpoint,” says Kay, “and physicians need to be a part of it. We have to be able to have conversations about finance, strategy, and innovation.” She notes that the traditional leadership path for physicians was based on how one functioned as a clinician. “Were you good at completing assignments and getting along with others, and were you known on a national level? That was the route to ascendency in medicine. But the skills you need to be a good clinician are not necessarily the ones you need to be a good leader.”