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Visual Explorer™: July 2009

July 13, 2009

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 (examples here and at the top of this post). LME cards are metaphors, labeled and illustrated with drawings (here, and below). 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

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July 02, 2009

Levels of looking

Al Selvin has been a fine fellow traveler in the development of Visual Explorer from nearly the beginning. The first time I met Al we uploaded VE images into Compendium maps and a prototype of what we now think of as D!gital Explorer was born (see this joint publication for example). Al's ideas about knowledge art started taking off around that time as well.

One of the few ways that Visual Explorer can get off-track is when the level of looking is shallow or cursory. VE works best under conditions of "slowing looking down" (per David Perkins) and paying attention in more artful and more disciplined ways. This kind of attention is one of the potential benefits of using VE and needs just a bit of facilitation, usually, to come alive. Al's post on his Knowledge Art blog, reposted below, unpacks this essential insight.

A few weeks ago I facilitated a Visual Explorer session for a social services agency for mentally disabled children and adults in the Hudson Valley. A friend is the IT director at the agency, and asked me to help run a communication session for the IT group and its internal clients.

This was the first time in several years that I've done a true, extended VE session with enough time and mandate to set it up and introduce it properly. There were 10 attendees, half from IT and half from other parts of the agency. We did two rounds, the first on the question "What's the place of IT in the organization?" and the second, after discussion, debrief, and a break, on "How can IT best support the organization (and vice versa)?" We spent about 2.5 hours in all.

In the first round, the small groups got engaged quickly and the discussions were lively. Even people who hung back at first got excited as it went on. One of the IT guys was at first reluctant to engage and didn't even pick a picture during the browsing period. But after the first two people in his small group took their turns, he jumped up and grabbed a picture, and ended up giving one of the more evocative and insightful descriptions.

In both large group rounds, the discussion was engaged and (as far as I could tell as an outsider) did enable people to talk in ways they normally don't to each other. A number of themes emerged, such as the separation between the different groups, surprise by non-IT people about how the IT people felt about their work and their relationships with the rest of the agency, how to better communicate about the goals and benefits of IT projects and deal with resistance to change by helping people to see what they could get out of the new capabilities, etc. Afterwards, a number of the people said that it had been valuable and that the pictures enabled them to have a better and deeper dialogue with each other.

I noticed a paradox in the session, which I've seen before. It involves differing levels of looking at and talking about what people see in a picture, and how the picture relates to their situation and concerns. It's relatively easy to get people to talk about what they see in a VE image on the level of what the picture "says", what they think the story of the picture is. This is a wonderful human capability -- something a computer could never do (e.g. "these people are happy because they just won a race", "nothing's really clear, the racers and the audience can't see each other well, there's such a frenetic pace" etc.). But the paradox is that it's not so easy to get people to go to the next level, to really look at and talk about the actual 'physical' details in the picture -- to engage with and talk about what they really see rather than the story or ideas that are suggested to them.

In other words, people relate almost instantly to what they see as the "story" of the picture, suggested by the images, facial expressions, etc. -- the visual detail that strikes us on a sub-verbal level, all the time, in conversations with others (for example, the way we "read" other people's moods and interpret what that might mean for us, as we scan their faces or listen to their voices in a meeting).

But to go farther -- to be able to say exactly what visual and aural nuances might have given us this impression (the crease of a brow, the elevated pitch of part of a spoken sentence) takes an extra effort and does not come readily for most people. I often think of what I had to learn in film classes in college -- not to just let a film "wash over" me in a tide of impressions and effects, but rather to pay close attention so I could see what techniques the filmmaker used to give me those impressions -- the small details of editing, sound, lighting, composition, color, and many others. This can lead to a deeper level of insight and articulation.

As the practitioner in the VE session I'm describing here, I tried to inculcate this to some extent. As people were working in the small groups, I walked around and made a few suggestions, such as pointing out specific visual details and getting the groups to look at them, when it was apparent that the group was in 'story' mode and could benefit from taking a closer look. That did seem to shake things loose a bit and move the conversation to a more engaged level.

This same dynamic occurs with other forms of collaborative media. Getting people to look closely and talk about what they see requires a level of effort -- for both participants and practitioners -- beyond what is easiest to do. The "story" level is also a good thing and generates dialogue that takes people out of their normal way of relating, but going farther is where a lot of the potential lies. Posted by Al at 9:27 AM

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