Stalin or Lincoln?

November 30, 2020

Erik eastman 7jSRJZJSvy4 unsplashThis post continues an earlier series on the theme of Leadership and is the third post in that series.  Links to the first two posts can be found in my post of yesterday.  Here I want to outline a previous IBM project which encompassed many of the principles of descriptive self-awareness in leadership development.  The project was run with Sharon Darwent when I was in IBM, under the direct sponsorship of Lou Gerstner and the Executive Development group in HR, working with a cohort being induced into his top three hundred.  The three hundred an interesting group, every year sixty joined in two cohorts of thirty each, and each year sixty left.   I still remember when Lou gave the introduction to the programme, his statement that today they had succeeded by making their numbers, now they had to carry on doing that but they also had to show a wider awareness of the needs of the company as a whole.  He also said, pointedly, that they would find this difficult and not everyone would make it through the process.  I was impressed with the speed with which Lou picked up on the ideas of complexity as he elaborated why they were engaged in the process.

Now all of this was a little daunting, we had been catapulted from obscurity to being front and central to internal strategic development.  I was about to appear in a worldwide advertising campaign as one of IBM’s On Demand Thinkers and we were considered central to IBM’s government strategy having won DARPA programmes.  Not only that my team had investment as an Emergent Business Opportunity.  So this training programme was the culmination of a journey, and also the start of its end.  I say this so you aware that some methods and techniques can be politically dangerous.  But I’ll return to that at the end of this post.

So we have thirty people who have been catapulted from general management roles to membership of an elite club that loses 20% of its membership each year, but means you are on the edge of getting to board-level positions.  They are locked up in the Armonk Training Centre for a week and Sharon and I have to take them through a process, which they know they will find uncomfortable.  So I want to tell this story in two parts, what we designed and then what happened.

I’ll outline it as a set of stages but let me start with some of the underlying principles and assumptions of the approach.  We were delating with an elite, largely male group of actors.  They had come from a privileged educational background and by luck or judgment had got themselves on to a fast track management programme.  Interestingly the ones who were most prepared to learn during the week we had them seemed to coincide with those who recognised the element of luck and those who learned little were arrogant enough to ignore their fortune.

Now that profile is not unusual for a leadership group.  We didn’t want to take the approach of much of what I call the therapeutic approach to leadership development.  This too readily assumes a degree of narcissism or authoritarianism which requires the individual to come to the mercy seat, confess their nature and profess in the future to be a servant leader or whatever is the current fad in the organisational development community.  We were paranoid about avoiding the normal facilitated reflection, personality tests and the like (although we had to live with some of those) which buts people on leadership development programmes into a self-referential and frequently self-important bubble.  So we set about setting up a system of interaction between the cohort group and their wider workforce that would allow the group to see things from different perspectives and draw conclusions from that data, and if appropriate seek to change their behaviour.  With the full agreement of Lou and HR we set out to make life difficult for them.

The plan

  1. For the first two days, the leadership group would be sent into impoverished areas of New York to work as janitors, care assistants etc.  The areas chosen would be ones that were considered exemplars of areas where the community itself had taken more responsibility for self-management.  The IBM team would be asked to observe and diarise their understanding of what had created natural leaders in that community without the benefit of education and privilege and reflect on what that meant for their own future.
  2. In advance of the programme the leaders were invited to nominate people in four categories (i) people they didn’t know personally whose work they could direct, (ii) experts whose knowledge they would rely on (iii) people with whom they had a deep relationship of trust which had evolved over the years, and (iv) people who they could work, or had worked within a crisis regardless of their background.
  3. The astute reader will recognise the four main Cynefin domains in those questions.  We then asked each of the people they nominated to tell a story about their first, or most significant encounter with the leader and to interpret that.  This was before SenseMaker® so we used linear scales for this in a questionnaire type format.  In some cases, we ran virtual workshops with the nominees to elicit their stories.
  4. The leaders were then given a catch of stories to interpret, each story of which was derived from a well-known leadership figure.  I’ve shown five American Presidents in the banner but in this case, we had a few of them along with Hitler and Stalin – do the good and the bad.
  5. We then prepared two reports.  One showed how they were perceived by four different groups of people – clear, complicated, complex, and chaotic.  The other compared the way they interpreted stories about good or bad leaders with the way their own workforce interpreted their interactions with said leader.
  6. Once we had all of that together we gave them all a nicely produced report that they could look at online in their rooms and reflect on what they had seen.  The report showed how they were perceived in different domains and then how their employees interpreted their experience of a leader with the way the leadership group had interpreted the figures of good and evil.  They were told that we would be around and the social space would be available for them to come and compare experiences with their colleagues.
  7. That material would come together in a facilitated session the next days where we would help them articulate their experience and reflect on changes, working with HR.

What actually happened

  1. Corporate community liaison agreed to set up the experience and I assumed they had done it as instructed.  But on the first night, I faced an angry group of senior leaders.  It turned out that community liaison had decided my process was a bad idea but they knew if they said so Lou would overrule them.  So instead they sent people into communities to interview people about their leadership style. removing the model of doing the work as a new joiner.  What was interesting, after I made people realise that it was a shock to me, was they had wanted the experience as described.
  2. When we presented the results of the two narrative captures there were two responses.  One was a degree of shock and people gradually drifted to the common area for a stiff drink and a discussion with colleagues. The other response, from let us call him Joel for want a a name, was to seek me out and scream at me as there was an exact match between his interpretation of Hitler and Stalin, and his employee’s interpretation of him.   Talk about shooting the messenger ….
  3. The HR director who was sponsoring the event and who had told me not to worry about upsetting people as she would provide top cover came to me at the end of day one and told me in cofidence that she was going to resign the next day as she had a new job with Microsoft and expected IBM would not be happy.  This she did and was promptly removed from the building and her engagement with the programme terminated so we were left on our own without top cover.

What I would (and have) done in the future

The basic design is sound, but in other post SenseMaker® projects we have utilised the journaling and reporting features of SenseMaker® to make the whole process slicker.  We have a leadership journal in which people on the programme keep a daily narrative learning journal and are given weekly tasks to interview other people and then reflect on that in additional narratives the whole creating a knowledge asset for the cohort.  I’d probably given them a project on both good and bad leaders of the past to do as a part of that journaling project and pick good people who became bad as a result of the context they lived through.  Also leaders who were good in the context of a crisis (Paton if you want a military example) but poor outside of that.   I’d also increate the amount to peer to peer learning.

I would get the leaders to select five groups not four, adding in an aporetic group of people who ask them difficult questions.  I’d allow the respondents to keep their narratives to themselves or to a coach or to the leader themselves.  I might also add in a generic capture around leadership archetypes rather than the good and bad historical leaders as the learning might be better.

Critically I would also set up projects in which we gave them a complex situation and then (i) got the cohort group to signify what was happening and come up with scenarios.  I would then get the leader to use their five respondent groups to carry out the same exercise and present them with the different results for discussion: the five groups, their cohort group and them.  In an executive coaching environment this would be a key aspect of that relationship over time.

I would also arrange and audit the deep emersion experience myself rather than delegating it!

Downstream I had made a lasting enemy in the man named Joel and that became a part of my leaving IBM and gave me a good story about narcism in leaders but I will return to that subject in the not too distant future.


Aside from the picture credit below I’d also acknowledge the work that Sharon did on this project and the Tom Jason & Linda project both in IBM as well as Lend Lease.    Sharon had the capacity to understand the intent of the design, modify it as needed but then put in the detailed work on the ground to bring everything together.  I’ve been blessed with others in that category but Sharon was the first I found in IBM  (Kath & Louise were  the first in DataSciences before IBM) and there have been several since.  If you want some of the stories then episode with most of the old IBM team in the Cynefin21 series was one of my favourites.  It isn’t up on the web site yet but as soon as it is I will provide a link.  Sharon carried on that work after I left IBM in BT and more recently as  Director, EY People Advisory Services where her project with the Met won the prestigious MCA award this year.  Oh, and she is Welsh and also studied at Lancaster.  Pedigree counts 🙂

To Unspash for the opening abstract picture by Erik Eastman and the various pictures of American Presidents in the banner image



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