Reflecting on the 8th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference

This conference was held at the Ashridge Management School in Hertfordshire, UK, 12-14 July 2016.  This was a really wonderful location for a conference as these images indicate:

2016-07-14 15.52.07 2016-07-12 15.19.46

It was a small more intimate conference which really fostered networking and a collaborative spirit. Engaging with some of the best thinking and practice in leadership development was not only an intellectual treat but also it really helped me to integrate much of the thinking I have been doing about where leadership development is heading.


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Getting Started


The image I have selected for this entry speaks to me of the neural connections that might well come from journalling or blogging. Little flashes of inspiration that coalesce into bigger insights. I have been thinking for quite a while now that I needed to create a blog – but for some reason I have put it off. In the last four weeks I have been doing an Alpha version of a Ubiquity University course – Transformational Leadership, Strategy and Governance. One requirement of this course is to blog about my reflections on the content. And I am fairly sure that taking/making time to reflect and to develop my blogging skills will be a critical part of developing my thinking during my PhD studies – looking at leadership development in higher education in Australia.

I think I have put off writing down my ideas mainly because I think a lot in the late evening and the wee small hours while lying in bed – and some of my best thinking and connections are made while driving. In both of those instances I have resisted interrupting the action (lying down or driving) to stop and write down my thoughts. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that those moments of insight and clarity are elusive in that they evaporate because I have not captured them on ‘paper’. So, I know that even when it is more difficult to start writing because I need to turn on the light and sit up, or pull over and take a break from driving that it would have already yielded significant fruits in the writing of academic papers. Up until now, what has stopped me though just because I have believed (foolishly it seems) that I would remember my thoughts later and be able to write them down then. So my advice to myself (and others should it be relevant) is to stop and write down those thoughts as soon after they surface as possible.

I am also hoping that writing here (or elsewhere) on a regular basis will also encourage those buried thoughts to resurface and find their way onto a page where they can start to weave their magic and become more coherently (and comprehensively) part of the synthesis of my thinking and learning. However, as someone who teaches online I regularly interact with my students in online discussion spaces so do in fact write and reflect on a regular basis but not for my own learning specifically.

In particular today, I have been thinking about the connection between Ichak Adizes’ corporate life cycles (cited by Merry, 2014) and the natural life cycles where the death of one cycle gives birth to a new cycle. The question or point in my mind is the enormous significance of the need for leaders to be aware to ‘give hospice to the old’ and to ‘support the emergence of the new’ (Merry, 2014) so that an organisation can be reborn into a new phase, rather than die – organisations reinventing themselves to meet the needs of the current market and/or environment.  We are seeing some organisations failing to do that effectively while others seem to thrive on reinvention and innovation. In my own context of interest, the higher education sector, applying this idea to the traditional idea of universities to see how they need to evolve to better meet the needs of the 21st century, and how the more modern interpretations of universities and learning methodologies are proving to be both competition and food for thought. How do we recruit and/or develop the right kind of leadership and decision making capacity to shepherd the old into the new era? Most universities have accepted a need for a degree of online learning, and there are many offerings of blended learning models.

I work in a university that has been involved in the provision of distance learning since the 1950s – it was one of the pioneers in Australia for the DE model which for several decades consisted of packaged materials being mailed out to students, students largely studying alone in isolation, but meeting with their teachers and fellow students at compulsory residential schools once in each teaching period. This model prevailed until the beginning of the 21st century. My university was, perhaps naturally as an evolution of the DE model, one of the first in Australia to go fully online with all of its teaching materials, but it is important to note that the pedagogies used in many units remained in the old model. So it was often a case of a transfer of materials from hard copy to soft copy and making them available online. In the last five years an increasing number of academics are using a wider range of pedagogies that make much better use of the digital and multi-media options, and include elements of synchronous and asynchronous learning. The process has been allowed to evolve in a more organic way following the lines of interest, and least resistance, rather than being an enforced, fully planned process to train and develop all teaching staff to facilitate learning in the online space. There are of course pros and cons to this approach.

But there is a chance that many of these organisations are already in the Adizes’ stage of Bureaucracy or even later. Is it possible for an organisation in such a late stage of maturity be reborn/reinvented transformed? What will it take? Who will it take to make it happen? What kind of leaders will/could make it happen? Are those who are appointing such leaders even aware of the need for this? How are we developing these leaders and constructing the idea of the work of leadership? Are we even giving leaders a chance to be successful? What forms of thinking are needed to inform these processes in the first place?

Clearly, to me at least, one place to start is with integral theory and to undertake some form of analysis that can demonstrate possible futures, required skills and capabilities, and to find ways to articulate and communicate this so that people who need to hear this can hear it and take it on board. I liked Peter Merry’s (2014) idea of giving hospice to the old and at the same supporting the emergence of the new, and that the gap between these two aspects illuminates the choice(s) that need to be made – the idea of letting go and letting come. And to accept the ambiguity and discomfort that the disruptive interface between the two creates a period of chaos that has ‘subtle order’ rather than no order at all. One irony (to me at least) of this is that my research Masters thesis undertaken between 1978 and 1980, in a completely different field (geomorphology) to my current interests, sowed the seeds for me of this notion of order in chaos. And yet, at that young age I lacked the confidence to know that my thoughts may be of value; I also lacked a mentor who might have guided me then to explore those findings further. What I discovered in my Masters research was that while there appeared to be order within a system when viewed through a macro lens, that same system when viewed through a micro lens did not display any significant order, in fact it appeared quite chaotic – there were no substantial correlations in the measured data. But within the chaos lay the iterative processes of change and renewal and reformation, in that specific case, of the land forms that were constantly changing through time.  It seems to me that this could also be used as a metaphor for the behaviour of any system. I was fearful then that my research would not be taken seriously, because it went counter to the writings of the “greats” in my discipline at that time. So, I seem to remember thinking “What would I know anyway?” and things like “may be my measurements were wrong” and the like. But in the last few years I have thought about this some more and realise that my current thinking contains elements of that research conducted nearly 40 years ago, and so now I can be grateful for the processes of time and the cumulation of wisdom that eventually gives birth to coherent ideas that can be more confidently presented!!

If any of these ideas interest you then please post a response to this blog.

Reference: Merry, Peter. 2014. Transformational Leadership, Strategy and Governance. Ubiquity University Certificate Course. See also Peter Merry.
Image: iStock_000002789321

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