This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 Gaming & Leisure Magazine.
How does one become a leader? Although human being have been studying leadership for millennia, the academic teaching of leadership to business people has only begun recently. Until the late 1970s, zero business schools and only three undergraduate schools in the U.S. taught leadership as a discipline: the United States Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy, and the United States Air Force Academy. The first doctoral program in leadership was not established until 1979. Paradoxically, leadership is an ancient discipline and at the same time, a new discipline.
15 Years Ago: Enron, Good to Great, and G&L
On Gaming & Leisure’s 15th Anniversary, we take a look at how our thinking on leadership has changed since 2001. That was also the year Enron collapsed, an event that started a conversation within the business community and business schools about how leadership is taught. In 2001, the latest work on leadership was Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and John Kotter’s Leading Change. It was the year that Jim Collins published Good to Great, and wrote “Level 5 Leaders.”
One of the great things about leadership is its enduring value: many old ideas (the Ancient Greek’s authentic leadership, Marcus Aurelius, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Burns’ X Theory and Y Theory, Bass’ Transactional and Transformational Leadership, etc.) are rediscovered. To honor Gaming & Leisure reaching this milestone, this article will focus solely on new scholarship published in the last 15 years to see how humanity today sees leadership differently than on the day when the publication was founded.
Since Gaming & Leisure was first published, there have been two major movements in the field of leadership:
A. Crucibles of Leadership—Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas (Harvard Business Review, 2002).
Harvard and USC professor Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the academic discipline of leadership, and consultant Peter J. Thomas interviewed 40 top leaders in business and the public sector and found something that surprised them: “All of them—young and old— were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experienced that had transformed them and had become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities.”: They called these experiences crucibles of leadership.
While many are defeated by crucible experiences, Bennis and Thomas distilled four essential skills for emerging from crucibles as a stronger leader:
Engage others in shared meaning
A distinctive and compelling voice
A sense of integrity (including a strong set of values)
The most critical skill: “adaptive capacity”
Adaptive capacity, they said, had two qualities: the ability to grasp context, and hardiness.
Grasping context is an essential skill that includes a spectrum of talents, from understanding how different people would interpret a gesture to be able to put a situation in perspective. Leaders who do not grasp context do not realize how their actions will be perceived, or fail to understand the biggest pictures in which circumstances happen.
Hardiness is an inner strength, which people draw upon to make it through challenging ordeals without losing hope. Hardiness, they said, came not only from an ability to put circumstances in context, but also from an ability to create a sense of belonging, hope, and optimism about change beyond themselves.
Using these skills, people emerge from the crucible stronger, more engaged and more committed than ever.
B. Creating Leaders: An Ontological/Phenomological Model— Werner Erhard and Michael C. Jensen, Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing, and Being ed. Nitin Nohira, Rakesh Khurana, and Scott Snook (2011)
Bennis and Thomas’ surprising finding left a problem for educators: if all leaders must go through a crucible experience, what should one do to become a leader? Wait for a crucible to come along? We will return to that question in a moment, but first, we have to return to the year G&L began publication.
As mentioned, 2001 was a turning point in the field of leadership. That is the year that Enron collapsed in scandal. What worried the academic community was that many of the executives at Enron and its auditor, Arthur Andersen, were graduates of the best business schools. In subsequent years, similar scandals at Tyco, WorldCom, HealthSouth, and Freddie Mac convinced many that something needed to change in business leadership education.
The Economist said in 2005, “The real problem arises when students, or their new employers, believe that an MBA is, somehow, a qualification for business leadership. It is not…” In a Harvard Business Review article the same year, professor Warren Bennis and James O. Toole pointed to what they and many other said was the source of the problem:
“Business schools are on the wrong track… The actual cause of today’s crisis in management education is far broader in scope and can be traced to a dramatic shift in the culture of business schools… This scientific model, as we call it, is predicated on the faulty assumption that business is an academic discipline like chemistry or geology. In fact, business is a professional, akin to medicine and the law, and business schools are professional school—or should be.”
The intent of the scientific model, it’s philosophical tradition, is knowing. For example, university students learn what is known about chemistry until they know chemistry themselves. Similarly, the preferred method of leadership research and teaching in the 20th century was knowing: observe or interview successful leaders, identify what qualities or skills they have in common, and teach those qualities and skills to students until they knew those qualities and skills. However, as anyone who has tried to lose weight or improve their fitness has experienced, knowing does not always equate with doing. Learning about leadership or knowing about leadership does not make one a leader.
This article also appears on Insigniam’s Enterprise Transformation blog.
Werner Erhard and Harvard Business School professor emeritus Michael C. Jensen began teaching a one-semester course in business schools, medical schools, and military academies with one objective: “Leave students who complete the course actually being leaders and exercising leadership effectively as their natural self-expression.” They put aside what they knew about teaching leadership and used the courses and laboratories in which to experiment, test, and iterate on theories about what it takes to leave people being leaders and exercising leadership effectively as their natural self-expression. They even considered the radical notion that such a course might never mention the words “leader” or “leadership.” Early in their work, they distinguished two theories of leadership and experimented with both:
- “From the Stands” Third-Person Theory of Leadership: being and action are observed and commented on by someone, and then described, interpreted and explained.
- “On the Court” First-Person Theory of Leadership: being and action are really experienced as lived in real time.
Bennis and O’Toole said that all leaders go through a crucible. Erhard and Jensen sought to design a semester-long crucible experience that would intentionally leave students being leaders by the end. Eight years later, Erhard and Jensen along with Kari ranger from the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development published the underlying theory for their course in the Handbook for Teaching Leadership edited by Harvard’s Nohira, Khurana, and Snook. The underlying theory, of course, had three parts:
- Foundational Context that Uses You: integrity, authenticity, being committed to something bigger than oneself, and being the cause in the matter as a context that uses you.
- Contextual Framework for Leader and Leadership: leader and leadership each exist as linguistic abstractions, phenomena, concepts, and terms.
- Removing Ontological Perceptual and Functional Constraints: Having mastered the context that leaves one being a leader and exercising leadership effectively as one’s natural self-expression, what remains is to remove what interferes with or limits one’s natural self-expression: ontological perceptual constraints (unexamined assumptions) and functional constraints (knee-jerk reactions).
Using in-class and out-of-class exercises and assignments, students in the course experience for themselves the various elements of the context for leader and leadership, mastering the context by making it their own and having whatever personal transformation that they need to have to leave the course being a leader. Early results are promising: in course evaluations, 88% to 93% of students report that the course delivered on its promise. Texas A&M is currently conducting a longitudinal study to see if those results last.
Conclusion: The Next 15 Years
Over the last 15 years, the focus of leadership research has shifted from the qualities and skills of leaders to what it takes to be a leader. While militaries have been turning young people into leaders for millennia and many of us personally know good business and community leaders, we still know surprisingly little about what it takes to become a leader ourselves or teach others to be leaders. With early signs of a reliable methodology for creating leaders, perhaps by Gaming & Leisure’s 30th anniversary, we will finally be able to answer the age-old question: how does one become a leader?