May 16, 2024

From Ivory Tower to Reality

I love the way past students keep in contact with me after they have finished their studies. It is extremely gratifying when there is an invitation to an ongoing conversation about their learning experiences.

I’ve been particularly delighted at a recent email from Victor, a student who completed the UCT EMBA programme last year.

Victor's email updated me on his progress and insights since graduation. He relayed the enormous struggle he had faced in trying to stick to his newly learned practices of self-awareness. His return to his site of work and the absence of lectures and assignments meant that he was experiencing the full might of his muscle memory of how it used to be combined with the pressure of how it was still expected to be.  

One of the many valuable insights that he shared was that he knew that he had left the EMBA with many insightful learnings about himself and his presence and ways of interacting with his world, but he felt one particular absence keenly. There had been very few teachings that had specifically addressed the very real and difficult challenge of ensuring that these personal learnings could be used to transform the effectiveness of teams.  

Victor told me of the progress he had made in tackling this issue. He had found enormous guidance in two particular books and had used their insights to forge his own path in building the strength of his team. He described a particular writing process that he had introduced for his team that changed the focus of an EMBA data-gathering activity to one which increased the quality of thinking in individuals and in the team.  

My gratitude to Victor for writing his email had several dimensions. The strongest of these was my delight in observing the various ways he had found the strength and determination to face the issues head on and had explored a range of nuanced solutions to fit his particular context and colleague diversity. To me this speaks to a deeply evolved awareness of both challenge and possibility.

His actions resonate with Maturana’s concept of intelligence being the plasticity to adapt one’s actions to changing context and range of participants. The implication is that this intelligence cannot be taught in a series of lectures or a 5-point programme. Maturana regards such an offering as unhelpful as it leads to rigid, unchanging actions that can never be intelligent.

The timing of Victor’s email was another gift in that it arrived just as I was settling down to conceptualise my final session with the latest EMBA cohort. This final module is almost exclusively devoted to preparation for the final research report with the necessary induction into the necessary academic framework. So, in a way, the class has already left the world of personal leadership as they move from ‘I’ to the academic ‘one’.

Victor’s email reminded me that this phase would be followed by the necessary re-integration into the powerful pressures of institutional life that would inevitably eat away at creativity and good intentions.

So, while I do not believe that there is any value in trying to use this last lecture to offer an algorithmic 5-step programme for teams, I do accept that I need to do more to offer the class a collection of firm and stable standing points that can be used as a basis for improving teamwork.

My initial foray into identifying one of these possible standing points is drawn from my experience of the first meeting of a 3-module Personal Leadership and Working Together programme for a corporate executive team. I insisted that our sessions were strictly framed to take place in a disciplined structure that foregrounded punctuality, mindful presence and groundedness, and an absence of cellphones during our contact time - including during tea breaks.

The focus for the module was on self-reflection and increased awareness and curiosity about each person’s way of being in the world. After each offering, Exco members were asked to write down their thoughts and reflections about their own actions and assumptions in a journal. Each of these reflection pauses was followed by an invitation for participants to share appropriate insights with a different colleague.

I had been briefed that this was a conflicted team who preferred to keep quiet rather than contribute to discussions. However, as they started sharing with each other, I could feel resistance to connection lessening and invisible bonds starting to strengthen between participants. I was totally delighted on the second day when I noticed that everyone was gathered around the tea table, engaged in conversation with no-one sneaking off to use their cellphone. I strongly believe that excellent teamwork is impossible without both structure and ease of interaction.

This example can be built on by using Maturana’s encouragement for plasticity as an entry point to intelligence. It’s an enormous challenge to develop this plasticity in oneself. It makes far more sense to use the diversity of the team as a resource - especially in situations when we find ourselves unwaveringly stuck. Such a move towards the inclusion of diversity will need the open trust of participants through a well-developed social capital as well as the introduction of a suitable structure that ensures each voice gets equal airtime and is equally heard and respected. Nancy Kline’s Time to Think programme is very useful for this work.

Looking ahead to that closing lecture next week, it feels important for me to stress that the variety of tools and ideas that have been offered on the EMBA programme are unfinished and acontextual offerings. As Victor discovered and reported, journal writing may have been initially used as a source of data for an assignment, but it can be used for many other purposes. For example, I sometimes use my journal as a tool to document a range of thoughts and perspectives as I try to explore the threads of a particularly taxing problem. I also use my journal to name inner tensions or fears so that they can have a life outside myself.

So, with enormous gratitude to Victor, this year’s closing session will be very different from the one he experienced as I attempt to identify some solid ground that may be of service in facing the inevitable re-entry challenges that the class will face when they have to fully re-enter the world of work.