Archive for April, 2015

“I’m an academic, get me out of here!”

Chris APL

The title of this post describes how I was feeling by the end of a week-long experiential learning course that I participated in last week at Henley; one of the most uncomfortable, confusing, frustrating and informative weeks I’ve encountered for quite some time.

Let me explain.

The course is called “The Advanced Personal Leadership programme” and has been a feature on the Executive Education menu at Henley for several decades. It has a reputation. If you ask the Business School about it, you get a limited amount of information. It’s five and a half days. It’s small groups. It’s about leadership and group dynamics. It’s experiential. It’s quite expensive. And that’s about it.

If you ask people who have already done it what it’s about, you either get the 1,000-yard stare of the fatigued Marine firing the rocket grenade half-way through the film Apocalypse Now, or you get a very pregnant pause while they think to themselves how to describe it. Then they usually say, ‘it’ll be interesting’. Which doesn’t help.

So, the scenario is basically that a group of managers (this detail will be important) arrive and are introduced to a daily, set timetable of sub- group and plenary sessions, some of which last until the evening, where the topic of discussion is – let’s be honest – somewhat vague. You are presented with a scenario that the existence of this group(s) is to be treated as an organisation, that sets itself tasks and monitors its own progress. The consultants sit it in the smaller group meetings, but do not say much. If I tell you that this about all the input you are going to get as a participant, then you will see how for the first couple of days I was pretty much in my “tutor” element. And my fellow group members were in their “manager” element. They were busily trying to second guess what the pragmatic problem was to be solved, and I was busy trying to work out what the philosophical lesson was to be learnt.  By Wednesday is was clear that everyone was at breaking point. I could see that they saw that I had no idea how to set a goal and move to structure, while it was clear to me that… well, actually not much was clear to me at this point.  I should add that although there was a task of sorts, the content and conduct of the sessions was more or less up to us. But to say more than that strays either into the territory of sharing what was said (which we agreed not to) or sharing why it was set up this way (which, reader, is up to you to find out by doing it yourself one day).

By Day four my feeling was that this was like Waiting For Godot, which was once famously reviewed as “a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice”. Of course, a lot was happening – precisely because all the other noise, facades, easy answers, models and trite utterances were inappropriate to the task.

For myself, I have (so far) the following as my conclusions:

1. All’s well that ends well. We pulled something together in the end, though I’m not sure whether what we pulled together wasn’t just the getting to the end of the process

2. I have a new-found admiration for people who are successful as managers and who have the self-awareness to develop themselves as leaders (whatever that is).

3. On no account must you ever hire me as a manager. Ever. That’s not where I can add much value. I appreciate that you also need structure and you need answers, but I’m just happier in the not-knowing and the asking. When you need that stuff, I’m your man.

4. Leadership, followership, getting things done with and through other people is political. There is no getting around it.

I don’t know how it is for my fellow participants, who all had their own ‘ah-ha’ moments (I mean of the insightful, not the Alan Partridge kind) during the week. I was in a new field of thinking when I delivered two PD workshops in the days after the APL, one where I had more compassion for the world as seen through the eyes of most of the Henley MBAs. Mind you, not enough compassion completely to stop messing ith their heads …

The photo in this post was one taken as part of our “event” at the end of the week. We all set up photos to illustrate a personal learning from the week. I am placing one set of chess pieces neatly in a row, while keeping the other foot firmly among the jumbled pieces of the other side.


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