August 2015 | 

Team Leadership: Action, Not Position

Team Leadership: Action, Not Position

Wharton@Work recently sat down with the team behind Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams. It includes Jeff Klein, executive director of the Wharton Leadership Program; Rodrigo Jordan, one of Chile's most accomplished mountaineers; and Todd Henshaw, former director of Leadership at West Point. Jordan and Henshaw are Senior Fellows at Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management.

Wharton@Work: Why did you develop Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams, and what makes it unique?

Jeff Klein: Eight years ago, as critical as teams are to organizational success, they weren’t getting a lot of attention in executive education.

Todd Henshaw: The three of us actually met at a seminar on experiential education. At the time, experiential learning was by definition a separate, off-campus event. We thought there must be a way to teach about teams in a shorter, classroom-based program that includes the practice of tangible skills.

JK: Right. We knew it had to be highly experiential: to learn how to better lead teams, you need to be on one and get real-time feedback. We also knew it was important to have the program led by a high-performing team — we model what we are teaching.

Rodrigo Jordan: That is one of the incredible things about the program. From the beginning, it has been a team effort. It was developed as a team and it’s led by a team. We each bring something unique, but it all works together. We also attract a very diverse group of executives, from their positions to their industries to their locations.

TH: We come from very different backgrounds, so there is real diversity, but we arrived at very similar conclusions. We converge on our key convictions about what it means to be a leader.

JK:  Yes — we all stress the role of value and purpose for teams. The intellectual framework is a shared one. Then we use daily experiences to bring those lessons to life. The program is an immersive opportunity to learn to perform at a higher level.

RJ: But the experiences have changed over time — the program continues to evolve.

TH:  One thing that has stayed constant, though, is the team teaching. It’s rare. Most programs have professors in for a day or a session, they answer questions, and then they leave. We are there all week. This model has been so successful that it is now used in Wharton’s Advanced Management Program. You get continuous exposure to and feedback from faculty.

JK: What we all share is the core assumption that leadership is an action, not a position. The challenge has always been how to get a group of executives together to form a community and go through the evolutionary cycle of a team in one week. We had to provide daily practical teamwork experiences plus the content that would help make sense of them.

RJ: In the end, we want the participants to learn. Just as any team member can contribute leadership on behalf of the group, we are always open to what everyone has to say. Over 350 executives have been through the program, and they have helped to shape it.

JK: We are starting a conversation with the participants, not preaching to them. The 350-plus executives who have come through the program see that high-performing teams do really good work, they continually grow and develop —

TH: and they have a really good time doing it!