High School Leaders Tell Stories of Leadership in Action

On Tuesday, 1 November, we ran a Leadership in Action (LIA!) workshop for a group of exemplary high school students who are participating in the West Point sponsored “Frances Hesselbein Student Leadership Program” this week (Coordinated by Melanie Dodge & the Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership).

HighSchoolLeadershipExercise(2)The students came prepared to share a story about a person—a story that is an example of leadership in action. During the workshop, participants told their story three times, and they listened to as many as 9 stories from others. Pictured below, the participants placed a hand on the person whose story resonated the most with them.

The exercise brings out underlying assumptions about leadership, and it helps clarify what we value and the kind of leader we want to become. One of the insights that crystallized for the participants is that they each have valuable stories to share and that, perhaps, one role of leaders is to create the space and time for people to share their stories.
We concluded the workshop by talking about specific, very practical, practices that we want to cultivate—practices that, over time, will enact the values and leadership principles that we think are so important. I think we all walked out of the experience more Positive, Inspired, and Energized than when we started!

If you want to learn more about leading your own LIA! workshop, read the callout on page 4 of this ARMY Magazine article (PDF) and read two previous blog posts: August 24, 2011 and April 5, 2011.

Thanks again to Melanie Dodge, the coordinator, for inviting us to contribute to this great program.

Personal Reflection: This was the first time we have done a LIA! exercise with young leaders like this (High School Juniors), and we were pleased with how well it worked out. Their stories were about exemplary teachers, coaches, and parents–and one especially good story was about an older brother who befriended a mentally challenged peer and, in the process, received more than he gave. The one thing we did differently with this one is that we asked the students a week ahead of time to come prepared to share a story. In other words, they had a solid heads up; in all our previous LIA! workshops, participants had to think of a story on the spot. There are pros/cons with both ways, but with this age group we thought it would be more productive if they had some time to think about it.

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Leader Challenge: Dynamic, High-Energy Leader Development

On 27 September, 144 platoons of cadets met across West Point to conduct the first “Leader Challenge” workshop of the year. In each platoon, the cadet platoon leader and an officer mentor worked together to facilitate a platoon-level session that featured round-robin, small-group conversation about a real-world, high-stakes, ambiguous problem faced by a second lieutenant in Afghanistan.

The “Leader Challenge” methodology is a two-part process: (1) Online Interaction; (2) Face-to-Face Workshop — all centered around a challenging, concrete experience that an actual leader faced.  You can read more about the Leader Challenge approach to developing leaders in this ARMY Magazine article (PDF).

Participant Feedback

Sometimes, participant feedback gives you the best feel for the value of an experience.  These are some responses after this particular Leader Challenge:

“I feel like I got to check out of being a cadet and check into being a PL for an hour. It was awesome!”

“I was really excited last night when I walked down the hallway and overheard a group of yearlings standing around the CCQ desk debating some courses of action for the scenario. They asked me if they were going to be able to do more Leader Challenges, and then we discussed the scenario for a little while.”

“The Leader Challenge had the best content and material in any PMEE lesson I have seen at West Point.”

“I am very pleased with the new system, and it really puts the control, tempo, and discussion of PMEE back into the cadets’ hands.”

“I was amazed at the energy and the deep level of discussion that was taking place. This was relevant & meaningful development.”

“Everyone loved the small groups of four, and the rotations kept the conversation lively.”

“It really forced cadets to think. It pushed them outside of their comfort zone by having to share and discuss the actions they would have taken, but it also helped them see the variety of possible answers as they listened to what their peers had to say.”

Things to Sustain in Future Leader Challenges

Upon reviewing the feedback, the top two most mentioned “sustains” were:

(1) the small-group format with rotations (high energy) in which one facilitator stays at the table and all other cadets move to a new table (all new people at the new table);

(2) the real-world relevancy of the content. Cadets appreciated wrestling with tough issues in the context of the profession they are entering.

I will close out this blog post with a few more participant comments to reinforce how positively the high-energy format is received:

“The LC concept with small group discussion and round robin is a winner. More cadets participate and they universally agree that small group sessions are the most productive part of the program.”

“The rotating groups kept the dialogue going. It allowed the groups to gain multiple perspectives on the problem.”

“I love the small group idea. Cadets talk so much more in groups of 3-5.”

“The discussion atmosphere, instead of a lecture.”

“This format is by far the best and most well received by the cadets.”

“I want to sustain the different rounds switching up the small groups. I felt that by getting different people’s take on the situation was good and allowed us to see the scenario from different points of view.”

What Do You Want In A Leader, Part 2

For over twenty years, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have been asking people all over the world what they want in a leader. As reported in their exceptional book The Leadership Challenge (see page 24), based on the input of 75,000 people, the qualities of a leader people willingly follow include: Honest, Forward Looking, Competent, and Inspiring.

Based on their research, the authors go on to lay out a compelling model for leadership. And if the book feels a little too hefty with your current work load, start with their shorter book, The Truth About Leadership.

So, how does this jibe with what we experienced in the “Leadership in Action” workshop?  The big surprise from our workshop was that we (36 cadet leaders) did not collectively value accomplishing the mission (competence), or vision (forward looking).  In our discussion afterward, individuals objected because, after all, they only had three votes and there are so many things that are important to leadership; however, what was clear as we stepped back and looked at the big picture was that we, collectively, did not value certain things.  Collectively, we had 108 votes.  Collectively, we did not value vision/looks ahead, develops subordinates, competence/accomplishes the mission, or team building (builds a cohesive team).

This deserves some thought.  What is behind this?  Could it be that at West Point we socialize ourselves to see leadership a certain way?  Could it be that because we are not experienced yet — and therefore do not see ourselves as “competent platoon leaders” yet — we undervalue the importance of competence and developing subordinates?  What would happen if we changed the question.  What if, instead of asking, “What do you want in a leader?” we asked, “What do you want in a battle commander?” Would that change our emphasis?

What Do You Want In A Leader, Part 1

Coming out of the Leadership in Action (LIA!) stories we told earlier this week, we identified a set of characteristics that the leaders in the stories exemplified.  In other words, we developed a set of themes that were present in the stories that we told about leaders in action.  We then voted on the factors that we thought were most important to each of us personally.  Each person got 3 votes to cast.  It’s really interesting to see how it played out:LIA1

LIA 2 LIA 3

Numbers in green show the number of votes received:
LIA 4
LIA 5What jumps out at you?  Any surprises?

Leadership in Action Workshop at West Point

This week, we kicked off a 3-month course at West Point called MX400: Officership.  This is a capstone course for seniors that focuses on the character, competence, and leadership skills officers need to lead Soldiers in battle–to accomplish the mission at least cost–along with a range of topics that are important to officership.

For our first class meeting, we ran a Leadership in Action (LIA!) workshop.

Have you witnessed leadership?

This is the question we asked the cadets.  They each answered the question by telling a one-minute story of leadership in action (LIA!)—giving each other concrete, personal examples of real-life leadership.  After 3 rounds of storytelling in small groups, we finished the workshop by talking about the themes that emerged.  The stories gave us a new glimpse into what is forging our understanding of what it means to lead.

Want to learn more?

  • Read LIA! stories and learn about how to run a workshop in this ARMY Magazine article (PDF).  If you are like us, reading this article will call to mind your own stories, and it will evoke in you a desire to lead in a way that is worthy of a story yet to be told.
  • Also, see the April 5 blog post describing the Leadership in Action process in full.

WestPointLIA(2)

WestPointLIA(3)

Positive. Inspiring. Energizing.

Great Team Exercise

We have used this exercise to great benefit over the years.  The basic concept is to get everyone thinking about the great teams they’ve been a part of and to channel that energy into growing the current team.  It rests on the principle that we the team members can, together, create a great team; it is in our hands to envision greatness and to take action to move us there.  It also ends up being a powerful way to get to know each other better and to understand some of our important past experiences.

Part 1:

Ask your leaders to think about the best team they’ve ever been on, and to think about a story they could tell — a “postcard” or “snapshot” story that would give us a feel for the team.  You can pair up people and have them tell their stories to each other or do the small group thing like the “Leadership in Action” Workshop.  In a small group, it is nice for everyone to get to tell their story.

Part 2:

Unpack the stories a bit and build the set of characteristics that were evident in the stories.  Ask, “We just heard some phenomenal stories about great teams you’ve been part of.  What do you think made these teams great?  What are the defining characteristics of these great teams, characteristics that were evident in the stories?” Capture the brainstorm on a dry-erase board or on easel paper.  Try to hone in on and use language that was used in the actual stories.  The more specific and in keeping with the specific stories, the better.

Part 3:

Vote on the characteristics of a great team that you want to define your team — the team we want to become.  One effective way to do this is to organize the Part 2 brainstorm on one sheet of easel paper.  Note: sometimes you can group several team characteristics together.  I like to give each person three colored round stickers and do three rounds of voting.  I take a photograph after each round of voting (1st round is when you place your first vote; 2nd round is when everyone places their 2nd vote, etc.).  That way you can see things emerging. It is interesting to see where people vote first.  The list of characteristics that get the most votes become your team’s aspiration — the team that you want to become, the description that you want to describe your team in the future.  There’s no formula for this, so be adaptive.  Somewhere around 5 characteristics can work well.

Part 4:

Compare the envisioned future with current reality.  As we look at the team that we want to become, how do we compare now?  What do we need to do in order to move in that direction, to reach our vision?

Drawing on an image that Peter Senge shared, I like giving each participant a larger ranger rubber band (black band) which they stretch between their hands. The top hand is the envisioned future and the bottom hand is current reality.  As we hold out and gain a clear vision for what we want to become and, simultaneously, look in the mirror and are honest about current reality, it creates tension that helps us move toward that envisioned future.  Most people don’t like tension.  To reduce that tension, we will lower our standard (go for something less) or deceive ourselves about our current reality.  Once we understand this dynamic, we can appreciate that tension as a positive.  Leadership happens when team members begin behaving in the moment in ways that are consistent with the envisioned future, when they take action to move from current reality to envisioned future, and when they help maintain the positive tension that propels us to the future we want.

I think you can do Part 1 and 2 in one session, while you need some amount of time before you dive into Part 3 (an hour to a day or two).  I think you might want to give a day or even a week before you dive into Part 4.

You can capture the description of the team in creative ways.  Maybe on a t-shirt that everyone can wear or on a poster that everyone sees.  

The more personal it can be as far as the language used, the better.  It needs to be grounded in the actual emotional stories that the team members told.  That is where the power lies.  Think of this more as a catalyst for conversation that generates energy, vision, and even accountability rather than a product that is created and then forgotten.

How To Run A Leadership In Action Workshop With Your Team

Recently, a group of us spent the evening talking about leadership.  The way we did it was this: we told one-minute “Leadership in Action” stories to each other (that is not a lot of time).  Picture 25 leaders in small groups, 3-4 per table, each telling a story about an experience that impacted them and that stands out as an example of a leader leading.  We kept a clock, keeping us to one-minute each.  After we were done at that first table, we each rotated to a different table and the clock started again: we told our story to fresh faces and listened to several new stories. We did three rounds of this.  By the time the “speed dating” was over, we had shared our story three times and had listened to at least 9 great stories.  It was energizing and even inspiring.  We came away from the experience fired up and plugged back into what we value most in a leader.

ASIDE: This can work as an ice breaker for new groups or an energizing experience for those who have been together for a long time. In addition to the learning around the topic of leadership, there are two skills that participants get to practice in this workshop: 1. The art of storytelling; 2. The art of engaged listening.  As a facilitator, it helps to mention this.  We like to interrupt the workshop after round 1 to talk specifically about how to be an engaged listener.

After round 3, we asked everyone to stand up and said: “Each of us is now going to put a hand on the shoulder of one person whose story really connected with us.”  Picture the chaos.  I have my hand on your shoulder, and you have to pull me across the room in order to get your hand on someone else’s shoulder.  Big thanks to Nancy Dixon who shared this “shoulder touching” idea with us.  Once everyone had their hand on one person’s shoulder, there were some participants who had many hands on them.  We finished the workshop by asking these particular people to share their story one more time, this time with the entire group.

A week later, we did this again with a group of 27 Army lieutenants.  We didn’t have time to do the full-blown version, so we introduced the idea and paired everyone up.  Two minutes later, every person in the room had shared their story and heard a story.  We closed out by inviting people whose buddy had shared an especially good story to “nominate” him or her to tell the story to the entire group.  After five people shared their story to the entire group, we talked briefly about observations or insights that had emerged for people and, bam, we were done.  Ten minutes incredibly well spent!