July 2016 | Leadership
Flexibility. It’s the latest leadership buzzword. In tumultuous, “whitewater” times, leaders must be able to shift direction, change focus, and quickly adapt to changing circumstances. Agility, though, is just one capability strong leaders possess. Wharton management professor and leadership expert Mike Useem says reinforcing your current strengths and adding to them is key to leaders’ continued effectiveness.
“It’s not easy to take a step back and assess your leadership in the moment,” he explains. “If you want to improve, carve out time to learn, reflect about your current capabilities, and build on them.” Useem says The Leadership Journey: Reimagine Your Leadership, a week-long program that he directs, was designed to provide such an experience. The author of The Go Point: When It’s Time to Decide, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, and The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All, Useem notes that such an intentional break from the workplace for education is even more important today, when new leadership capabilities are required.
Specifically, he says tremendous recent changes have placed new demands on leaders. “Twenty years ago, if you rarely or even never stepped foot outside your own country, it didn’t matter. Then, only about a quarter of the S&P 500’s sales came from outside the U.S. Now they’re close to half. What if the next promising opportunity is in Mexico or Brazil? You have to be able to lead effectively in any situation, with any people, anywhere in the world.”
Greg Shea, a senior fellow at the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management who also teaches in The Leadership Journey, says the program addresses this capability in a number of ways. “Leading in an unfamiliar setting, whether it’s a culture, country, or even team, is about sense-making. You have to be able to make sense of different situations with different people and reference points, and understand where you fit in.”
Shea says through a range of experiences that demand absorbing data quickly, making decisions, and trying different approaches, participants can see where they stand now and where they can improve. They also spend time every day during the program reflecting about what worked and what didn’t with a group of peers from around the globe. “They perform in teams as both leaders and followers. They learn from Shakespeare’s Henry V and a battlefield commander — on stage and at a battlefield. They run an airline in a simulation where there’s a premium for being fast on the uptake and making tough decision under time pressure. We keep providing different experiences, and the participants have to decide how they will deal with them. The Leadership Journey is not about taking notes until it’s time for the next coffee break.”
“What worked in the past — having a vision, being a great communicator, and thinking and acting strategically — in many regards still works in the present,” says Useem, “Those capabilities need to be strong. But leaders today also need more; meeting today’s new challenges requires adding to your leadership repertoire.”
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