Two days ago I came back from a fairytale place called Windermere where I spent 5 days attending an Open Leadership Program organized by Impact International. I have been following Impact’s work for a year, so I was quite excited about the opportunity to participate in their program. Below is nothing but my opinion of how the training went, personal and subjective observations of why the training was not what I expected.
About Impact International
Impact International is a global people development company with an impeccable reputation. The company has been established 33 years ago in the UK. This year it has been awarded Best Workplace for 2013 in UK and has been named as one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies for 2012 by TrainingIndustry.com. The training company operates in over 50 countries and has clients like Google, Apple, JP Morgan, Procter & Gamble,PricewaterhouseCoopers and Sony.
So based on their reputation, you would not be surprised that my expectations were very high and my enthusiasm even greater. Unfortunately, I have to say that the Impact Open program was not what I was hoping it would be. For the last 5 days I have been trying to figure out whether it was something about me in this moment or was it the training that left me disappointed. People close to me know that when it comes to leadership and management it is impossible to kill my enthusiasm. Unfortunately this was not the case this time.
We were at Cragwood Country House, a hotel owned by Impact International. Cragwood is a an amazing place to stay – beautiful, cozy rooms and lovely gardens leading to the largest natural lake in England. The scenery leaves you breathless because of the serenity which quiets the voices inside you. It is a place to go and write a book or spent time reflecting where you are and where you want to go. It is a place away from busyness, which brings you back to nature, thus closer to your real self.
The Training Theory
The first day of the training was inspiring. The trainers helped us get to know each other and from the very beginning posed some serious questions to ponder about. They challenged us to think about the quality of conversations we have with the rest of the participants – is it simply a small, superficial talk based on facts and information, or is it a real, challenging one which provokes us to go deeper and to get to know each other better by sharing beliefs and emotions.
Theory spot on Transactional Analysis by Eric Berne:
The trainers recommended to us three books worth reading about this method: What Do You Say After You Say Hello? The Psychology of Human Destiny; Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis and I’m OK, You are OK
The first step of leadership we talked about is noticing what is going on inside and around you and it is about challenging yourself to look even harder for what you are not seeing. It is about understanding what pushes your buttons and being aware of what pushes other people’ buttons. It is also about recognizing that the only person you can control and change is you. Another vital skill we talked about for becoming a leader is in building critical reflexivity – the ability to examine critically our values and the assumptions underlying our action and the impact of those actions.
The trainers provided us with a simple, but useful equation about leadership: E=P-I (Your Effectiveness Equals the Potential in You Minus Outside Interference). Interference can be our own doubts, fears, prejudices, as well as outside it can be people who doubt or undermine our potential. We were provoked to acknowledge and recognize the conversations going on in the back of our own heads – are we judging the rest of the people we just met, are we right there in the moment simply being, do we think about the work back home, are we stuck in the past or focused on challenges we expect in the future?
Theory spot: This helpful concept comes from the book: The Inner Game of Work: Focus, Learning, Pleasure, and Mobility in the Workplace.
What followed by the end of the day was the recording of one minute video of each one of us individually answering the question “Why should anyone be led by me?” We covered several more models, but unfortunately none of the fresh, emerging leadership concepts.
Then we headed to the mountains hiking in the dark to a distant hut where a car cannot reach. Excited we entered the hut, rolled up our sleeves and started preparing a common meal – a delicious, spicy Thai curry. Up till this moment, the training was inspiring & challenging.
We were having a chat in a relaxed atmosphere, enjoying the calmness of the mountains and the distance between everything familiar to us and this foreign place. Then there was an overreaction by the trainer and a verbal conflict emerged from nowhere between him and one of the participants. What truly disappointed me was that the trainer who was there to teach us about leadership did not handle the conflict well (conflict management, one of the most important skills for a leader!!). Not only that he did not resolve it, he allowed himself to be drawn in it, influencing him and his emotions. He allowed the conflict to grow, to divide the group in camps thus destroying the trust and the group spirit. The days that followed provoked a lot of futile discussions about our immediate emotions, about us not functioning as a team. We were given a list of initiatives to choose from in order to be able to design the training by ourselfves for the upcoming two days. We were supposed to work as a team and demonstrate leadership by taking the initiatives in our hands. To a great extend, it did not happen.
Used to productivity and task accomplishment, all of us were highly frustrated by not coming to an agreement on almost any of the activities. As a result, these two days were mainly spent in long and often meaningless discussions of who insulted whom on a very, in my opinion, superficial level. The intervention of the facilitators was rarely in the right moment, which distanced the group members further from each other. It was even mentioned to me that not working well together might be because of cultural differences – a statement that I deem unacceptable in the globalized world we operate in.
There were two activities that brought us together. The first one was sailing in a fisherman’s boat, which was a great and calming experience.
What we also managed to achieve together was preparing for a community event in a Holehird, a home to 28 adults with physical disabilities. We spent two challenging, but emotionally rewarding hours, presenting our countries to the lovely residents (this is me doing a presentation about Bulgaria).
When we came back we were united by being able to overcome our own fears of going to such a place and the experience touched each one of us deeply. Still, the trainers failed to use this uniting power to bring the group back to the working mode together.
The training ended with an afternoon session on the grass, but besides the beautiful scenery, we did not learn anything new neither about leadership, nor about ourselves. The only thing I could not stop thinking about is the way the group could have worked together.
I am not sure whether it was the trainers’ fault only. My discouragement comes also from the fact that recently I started having doubts whether leadership could at all be thought. From all the trainings I have attended (including one in Harvard for which I will write about soon), I have to be very honest that they have one thing in common – they are short, superficial, outdated and can’t help you become a better leader in the current complex world.
A training cannot change your life or change your character. A training’s goal is to inspire you to learn more – to show you that there are other ways, to ask you to reconsider your approach to your work and life and last but not least, to leave you hungry for more.
One sure way I know of building leadership skills is through self-reflection – to sit alone, calm down, have an honest conversation with yourself about the real interferences that stop you from showing your leadership potential. But we are too busy to do that, aren’t we? So instead we are willing to waste a week going away from home, travelling 13 hours in our case :), to attend a training with people we don’t know, to find out that all we need to know about leadership, we already carry with us. Leadership is tested on the frontline, but developing leadership potential is very often a solitary practice of an honest reflection.
Do you agree with this statement made by the Impact trainers:
I don’t. For me leadership is both – a special kind of action done by a special kind of person. That is why it is so difficult to teach it – because it requires strong character!