How Can Leadership Be Taught: Symposium at the Harvard Business School

Visual Explorer #517

Recently I had the pleasure of sharing our ideas about leadership culture with the symposium on How Can Leadership Be Taught at the Harvard Business School. Our conveners aimed at creating a shared body of knowledge for teaching leadership effectively. Our presentations were to try to convey, in a TED-like 15 minutes, what the experience–not simply the content–of teaching and learning leadership is like in each of our worlds. For example Marshall Ganz talked about the importance of the Story of Us in his movement-building work with Camp Obama. Marshall’s video of one volunteer telling her own story of moving from doubt and fear to hope was riveting.

One overarching theme was the definition of leadership. A key distinction is whether the focus is on developing individual leaders, or on enacting a collective process beyond the bounds of the classroom. Again taking Marshall Ganz as an example: his work integrates the individual and collective levels of leadership, combining the Story of Self, with the Story of Us, plus the Story of Now (the urgent challenge calling us to act.) Often we as teachers have individual students in our classrooms and a focus on self-as-leader is salient. At other times we work with the whole system or its fractal parts and we “teach” or develop the beliefs and practices of that system to meet challenges together more effectively. Camp Obama looks more like distributed or collective leadership when viewed as a shared political movement.

For my turn, I talked about leadership culture, and how it develops from dependent to independent to potentially more interdependent forms; and how culture change is necessarily at the leading edge of any successful organizational change effort. A big challenge in teaching and implementing these ideas is that, while individual leaders and their behaviors are singular and visible, leadership culture can be almost invisible and difficult to grasp (difficult to view as an object fellow presenter Bob Kegan might say.) Part of the developmental journey is the practicing of the kinds of attention that make culture and distributed forms of leadership more visible, and tangible, and thus more able to be viewed more objectively.

I asked the group to reflect on the following questions, taking a minute to write in their journals or on a piece of paper:

  • How is leadership done where you work?
  • What does it typically look like in action?
  • What is the leadership culture of your workplace?


Taped under your desk you will find an envelope with three cards. Find one card that especially fits or illustrates your response to the questions. You may share and trade cards with anyone in the room.

Half of the envelopes had Visual Explorer cards and half had Leadership Metaphor Explorer cards. VE cards are purely images. LME cards are metaphors, labeled and illustrated with drawings. I wanted to give a taste of each, and to see what happened when I combined the cards. I put on some cool jazz while they browsed for a couple minutes. The 15 minute clock was ticking.

Find a partner. Share your cards in two ways. First, what are the details of the card itself? Next, what does the card mean to you and why did you pick it?

After sharing your cards, take another minute and jot down key insights from the conversation you just had.

The conversations were vibrant and serious, with lots of laughter. People connected very positively with each other. I think they helped each other develop some terrific initial insights about the topic and their relationship to it. The cards and creative conversations helped make culture more visible.

In a longer session the other person or people in a small group (3-5 ideally) also observe your card in detail and connect with their own keen observations and possible meanings, “if I had picked that card I would notice … .” Dialogue ensues, with tangible images and metaphors in the middle.

A debrief would have been terrific but I was running out of time. So I talked a bit about the three stages of leadership culture–dependent, independent, and interdependent. Particular images and metaphors from Visual Explorer and Leadership Metaphor Explorer help convey the action logic of each stage of culture, and this helps tie the whole lesson together.

The slides below show these ideas plus some more I did not have time for. One is the idea that leadership culture must develop in concert with the vision, mission, challenges, and strategy of the organization. More interdependent forms of leadership are needed to meet more complex challenges.

Another theme I noticed is that we as educators or developers of leadership tend to target a specific transition in the developmental journey. For example, earlier in the life span one targets basic empathy as a key to being a leader. Later on, integrity becomes more salient, especially in the workplace. Still later, moving beyond the narrow confines of self-identity and solo ambition to more interdependent ways of enacting leadership is important.

I welcome your thoughts!

father and daughter at the symposium

About Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth

Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth are Senior Fellows at the Center for Creative Leadership. Many thanks to Steadman Harrison III, CEO of GO, and Senior Associate for the Center for Creative Leadership.
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One Response to How Can Leadership Be Taught: Symposium at the Harvard Business School

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