“Top Leaders’ Experiences of learning”

Top Leaders’ Experiences of Learning

(This paper was delivered to the  EMCC Research conference in Warsaw on June 23 -24, 2015. It is based on the author’s research thesis submitted to the University of Middlesex, and for which he was awarded a Doctorate in Professional Studies: Leadership learning)

Dr Stephen Barden[1]

Stephen Barden Coaching Limited, UK


Abstract: Research into Leaders has mainly focused on their impact or performance rather than their personal learning experiences –and therefore development. The present paper summarises the social constructivist grounded theory doctoral research conducted by the author into the personal learning experiences of ten top organisational leaders drawn from the military, academic and corporate sectors. It constructs a developing theory containing two novel concepts (the Navigation Stance and Navigational Template) that underpin their assumptions and behaviours. These may be useful to leaders, researchers and coaching practitioners in understanding the development of successful leaders –what the author calls the ‘becoming’ of leaders.


Keywords: top-leaders, leadership, learning, coaching,




Despite a plethora of literature on ‘leadership’ and ‘leaders’ very little has been published on the personal experiences of learning of individual organisational leaders.[2] A review of the literature shows that the majority focus has been on the impact of leaders, their behaviour or their effect, rather than on their experiences, assumptions and perceptions of learning.

Writers such as Heidegger (1953), Jarvis (2006), and even Kolb (1984) clearly identify learning as the phenomenological process of being and becoming in the world rather than something that happens to someone. Within that paradigm learning happens at the interface between learner (in-the-world), experience (in-the-world) and the context (in-the-world).

In order to understand what learning is occurring (what the person is becoming) one has to have some understanding of what assumptions the learner is making –not only about that particular experience but also about her capacity to be able to act (specifically) on that experience and (generally) in the world. Illeris (2007a) does include the “dimension of emotion, feelings, motivation and volition” (p.87)– which he calls ‘incentive’ – as a key ingredient of learning. However he neither discusses the learner’s assumptive capacity to act in the world nor how this ‘incentive’ may have been developed.

Why is this ‘capacity to act’ so important? Because, at the heart of learning is doing, experiencing. Kolb (1984) roots learning in “the transformation of experience” (p.38). Jarvis (2006) sees learning as what the learner is becoming “as a result of doing and thinking – feeling.” If we learn by doing and in order to do then our capacity to do (to act, to experience) must affect our learning. If I am convinced that I can neither act on, nor even experience, a particular stimulus then I will be less prepared to be alert to its value. I will be less prepared to learn from it. This capacity to act is, the author argues, closely related to Foucault’s concept that a definition of self is always mitigated by its relationship to power. (Foucault, 1991) We define ourselves by our assumed capacity to act within the world.

The difficulty for coaching practitioners is if they do not know what forms the basis for their client’s learning – the assumptive language as it were- how will they enable consistent and holistic change? If they do not know what informs their client’s capacity to act, how will they know what their client can do with the learning –and how much of it will be retained?

Coaching practitioners and writers have tried to deal with the issue in a number of ways. Some insist that one does not need to discover the underlying assumptions – one simply needs to deal with the present and work towards a goal. Starr (2003) argues that coaching focuses on “improving our performance and creating desirable results” (p.11) The implication seems to be that coaching starts from where we find ourselves and then enables a process to create “desirable results”. That may be useful in performance coaching but much less so when working with leaders on behaviours. Even on specific technical issues such as prioritisation or delegation, the underlying blockage may be, and often is, caused by more generalised assumptions developed in other contexts rather than as a result of a lack of skills or even process.


It is a specific concern of the author that the emphasis by coaches on output without a balanced understanding of the underlying assumptions held by the client can result in processes or tools that encourage clients to model themselves on a set of ‘approved behaviours’ rather than becoming with their learning. Book titles such as “Act Like a leader, Think Like a leader”(Ibarra, 2015) “Developing the Leader within You”(Maxwell, 2005) “Leaders Eat Last” (Sinek, 2014) and “Leaders Don’t Command”(Cuervo, 2015) to say nothing of “Body Language Habits of Effective leaders” (Larson, 2015) all contain the strong implication that there is an objective model of ‘being a leader’. If we emulate that model, we too can be leaders. Similarly, widely used assessment tools that link ‘personality types’ or personality traits to successful or unsuccessful leadership offer little in the way of how the leaders themselves experienced their learning, how they became those so called personalities or even developed those behaviours that enabled them to act in the world. Despite detailed statistical research studies in support of personality profiles (Hogan, Curphy & Hogan, 1994; Harms, Spain & Hannah, 2011) we are no closer to understanding the ‘leader becoming’. Leading becomes less of a job than a role in which the actor simulates leadership. How are these models of ideal leadership behaviours developed? Largely, in line with trait based leadership theory, through observation of leaders’ behaviours and impact across contexts. Following this logic, Zaccaro (2007) concludes “Persons who emerge as leaders in one situation also emerge as leaders in qualitatively different situations” (p.10). Or, as Hogan (1994) puts it “A Somali warlord who its trying to bring together a group of clansmen to control food supplies needs the same skills as an inner-city Chicago minister who is trying to bring together a group of parishioners to help the homeless.” (Hogan, Curphy & Hogan, 1994. p. 493)


If the Somali warlord and the inner city minister share the same skills, then of course, one can start profiling ‘leaders’ against a set of ‘ideal’ attributes, through leadership evaluation and personality assessment tools. As a coach, one can even satisfy the requirement for contextuality by utilising 360-degree feedback. However, within this approach, the coach’s work is focused not on the client’s ‘becoming’ but on her arrival. Despite our protestations that the journey is equal to, if not more, important than, the destination, by focusing on output and leadership models, we are denying both the uniqueness of our clients’ journeys and the learning they have experienced –and therefore their perception about their relationship with the world.


If we are to mentor and coach leaders-in-the-world, then we need to understand something of their relationship with the world: not only their perceptions of their capacity to act but also how they arrived at those perceptions.


The author’s doctoral research inquiry was stimulated by the core concern described above: how are we to coherently develop current and future leaders unless we know how they experience their learning? How do we know the impact of leaders’ assumptions about themselves-in-the world unless we know something about the nature and formation (the ‘becoming’) of those assumptions?

The literature review for the research covered experiential learning, leadership, power, the phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Husserl, as well as the developmental psychologists such as Piaget and Cyrulnik.

It may suffice for this paper to focus on the existing literature on top leaders’ learning. This tended to be constrained by the external assumptions of the researchers. One study entitled “Understanding leader development: learning from leaders”, (McDermott, Kidney and Flood, 2011) set out to marry managers’ personal learning experiences of leadership development with existing theory through semi structured interviews based around 20 questions. By asking such questions as “What are the critical things that have shaped you as a leader?” (p.361), the researchers uncover very little about the meaning making of the human being. What, for example, are the participants’ assumptions about ‘being a leader’? How are they expected to evaluate whether one experience is critical to leadership and another not? What were the experiences that resonated with them as human beings? Or should we believe that the ‘being’ and the ‘leader’ are separate entities?

Another potential literature source of the personal learning of top leaders was the autobiographical account. Like Conway and Pleydell-Pierce, (2000) a number of researchers have discovered that autobiographies tend to be an attempt to align the self’s narrative with current goals and beliefs. Pasupathi (2001) argues that accounts by public figures may be affected not only by their goals but also by the perceived expectations of the reader/listener. So, for example, an ex Cabinet Minister may present a different profile to his reading public than when answering questions under strict anonymity to an academic researcher. In an autobiographical account, the emphasis would tend to be on ‘arrangement’ of the narrative. In an open research dialogue, the focus would, hopefully, be on discovery.



Research method and process


The question at the center of this research inquiry (Barden, 2015) was

What are the personal experiences of learning of individual leaders, and what implications do these personal experiences hold for coach–mentoring at this level?”

For the purpose of this study, leaders were defined as “people who have achieved significant and overall authority in their chosen institution or organisation.”

The focus of the research was to enable a select group of top leaders to articulate personal learning experiences that they considered significant or resonant in the lives. Whether these experiences occurred in childhood or in their professional realm was less important than their experience of them – and the impact they may have made on their decision-making. There was thus little or no presumption made about the ‘objective’ significance or the timing of the learning. However, on reflection, it could be argued that in attempting to understand whether these leaders had undergone “significant learning episodes” (Barden.(2015) p.10) this author did make two assumptions: that certain learning events were more significant than others and that learning emerged from episodes or events.

Given the priorities of exploring the personal learning experiences of top leaders it was clear that a qualitative methodology was the more appropriate. Because a further priority was to ensure the articulation of these experiences while maintaining reflexivity of both the researcher’s assumptions and participants’ protectiveness, it was decided that an appropriate methodology would be one that analysed data phenomenologically.

After considering narrative research, intuitive inquiry and discourse analysis, grounded theory was selected as the research method. The further selection of constructivist (as against discovered or IPA) grounded theory stemmed from the author’s own epistemological requirement (or at least hope) that the research could have value to the coaching profession. As Willig (2008) puts it, to “capture the lived experience of participants and to explain its quality in terms of wider social processes and their consequences.” (p.45)

The process, to support this final choice of constructivist grounded theory as a method, followed –and hopefully built on –the rigour advocated by Charmaz (2010). This included:

  • Data: rich enough to ensure a clear understanding of social contexts, participants and dynamics. It was decided that at least 9 research participants, from three sectors, would be selected for this research study.


  • Data Gathering: The data was gathered through ‘episodic interviews’ (Flick, 2009) in which, as King and Horrocks (2010) put it, “the story being told in the narrative interview is in the form, shape and style most comfortable for the person doing the telling.” (p.218)


  • Data Analysis. The process included the following stages:
  • Reading and immersion in the transcripts:
    • Initial coding
    • Focused coding and clustering
    • Coding for themes
    • ?Research participants’ comments and validation
    • ?Construction of interpretive themes
  • Across sample
    • Emergence of/construction of themes common across sample
    • Reflections by research participants and researcher and short survey.
  • ?Construction of proposed theory grounded in the data

A series of memoranda on each of the participants accompanied the process capturing the analysis and the reflexivity of the researcher.


The required level of leadership for the research participants was equivalent to that of active or retired Chief Executive. Initially invitations were sent to Corporate Chief Executive officers (both profit and non-profit); Cabinet rank politicians and secondary or tertiary education principals, presidents or vice chancellors. The requests to politicians met without any response at all, despite the fact that they were made by referral. That category was therefore replaced by military leaders of the minimum rank of 2-star general, or OF-7 as per STANAG 2116 (2013, NATO standardisation agreement, Edition 5).

Ultimately 10 leaders were selected to participate in the programme: 4 Generals, 3 corporate CEO’s and 3 academic ‘presidents’. They were all briefed on, and agreed to, the purpose and expected process of the study as well as the conditions of confidentiality. All research participants signed an appropriate consent form and all administration assistants signed non-disclosure agreements.

Of the 10 leaders, 2 academics were female, as were 2 corporate chief executives. The military leaders were all men. In this regard, it should be noted that the first woman to reach the equivalent rank of two star general in the United Kingdom did so in August 2013 (BBC, 2013). Although it could be a shortcoming, no gender comparisons were offered in this work. Indeed, while the reflexive approach attempted to ensure sensitivity to issues of gender and ethnicity (whether expressed or latent) it treated them as part of the eco-system of learning expressed by that individual.

Interviews were conducted face to face, by telephone or video conference with all participants declaring themselves to be comfortable with their chosen medium. They were all recorded and transcribed.


The interviews


After reflection, and bearing in mind the purpose of enabling the participants to tell their own story, only one standardised question was structured into the interviews. This was “Without thinking too much about it, what event or period of time (in your job or career) remains most strongly resonant with you?” This enabled the research participant to explore an experience without having to define it as “important” or “significant” for leadership but which, by being “strongly resonant”, had personal, emotional significance. This served as an entry point for a dialogue on the research participants’ experiences, how they learned through them and what were their assumptions about themselves-in-the-world.


The analysis began with a period of ‘immersion’. This was achieved both by reading and correcting the transcriptions while listening to the original recordings and by ‘staying with the data’ – what Corbin and Strauss (2008) see as a sensitising process that ends with the researcher being able to say “Aha, that is what they are telling me. (At least from my understanding)” ( p. 33). This period lasted several weeks and, in some cases, months.

Thereafter each transcript was scrutinised line by line and coded to capture the building blocks of the narrative –using the research participants’ own words. These codes were then, in a 2 stage process, focused and then clustered. Charmaz (2010) sees focused coding as refining the initial coding into „directive, selective and conceptual“ (p.57) codes. The author then clustered the codes to prepare them for thematic identification. Initial, focused and clustered coding largely used the research participants’’ own words and avoided using terminology across the sample. Thereafter the clusters were identified as themes. All these stages retained the sequence of the interview, as it was a key part of the research that the interviewees recognised and agreed with the logic of the analysis. To this end, each was sent a copy of the researcher’s memorandum outlining the progression of the analysis, a copy of the themes for their comments and the entire transcribed interview. All responded by email or phone confirming they were clear and were broadly aligned with both the process and the themes that were emerging.

The final stage of the analysis borrowed from the concept of ‘theoretical coding’ (Charmaz 2010; Glaser 1978) where, as Charmaz elegantly puts it, “the analytical story moves in a theoretical direction” (Charmaz, 2010, p.63). Scrutiny of and immersion into the themes identified that all of the narratives could be re constructed along the following lines:

  1. The challenge(s) faced
  2. Dealing with/negotiating the challenge(s)
  3. The impact of the way they dealt with the challenge on the learning they applied to their leadership.

These 3 areas were then filled by the themes identified for each of the participants (See Table 1 for an extract).

It is argued that the constructed narrative remained grounded within the data in that it was solely derived from the data provided. Additionally, this interpretive construct would be referred back to the participants for their reflection, challenge and comments. (As further detailed below)

At this stage, the interpretation did not preclude the possibility of so called ‘innate’ characteristics or traits. Some of the leaders, for example G4 above, called some of their early behaviour ‘innate’.

The themes – expressed in extensive detail (Barden, 2015, Appendices 8a and b)- were then scrutinised for commonality.

The common characteristics that were initially interpreted were:

  1. Innate characteristics:
  • Some spoke of innate self-confidence, another of ‘innate curiosity. They all identified behaviour or characteristics that had been with them from a very early age and which they clearly saw as being ‘an integrated part of their persona’
  1. Strongly pragmatic:
  • They did whatever they could in the circumstances. When Academic A1 was blocked from being academically successful by being mistakenly placed in a ‘remedial class’ as a child, he made sure he became socially and athletically successful – until that was no longer enough.
  1. Three way challenges
  • They all constantly challenged themselves and others; and made sure that they were challenged by others. General G2 set up a system by which he and his command team were tested every six weeks by problems (at brigade level) set by his chief of staff as well as by the second in commands in each of the battle groups.
  1. Absence of isolation and unilateralism
    • There was a strong theme throughout all the interviews of decisions being taken with the support of others. What in fact was totally absent from all leaders (even those who felt themselves quite isolated) was unilateralism, whether as generator of ideas, or as executor of actions.
  2. Nointernalisation of failure
    • They did not identify themselves with the defeat or disappointment of failure. They learned and moved on.
  3. No blame
    • Even when they were patently ‘let down’, they tended to avoid blaming others – seeing it as a waste of time.
  4. Reality
    • An intense sense of what is rather than what ought to be, or might be. This was not a lack of vision, but the ability to clearly see the status quo without wishful thinking.
  5. Holistic
    • This was not simply the ‘big picture’ but a realistic understanding of the linkages within the greater ‘ecosystem’: be that the theatre of war, the local and national contexts of education, the corporation as economic, social and political ‘ecosystem’.
  6. Alert to constituents
    • Alert to the mood and capacity of the stakeholders around them. They variously talked of ‘listening to the ground’, ‘walking the corridors’, having ‘trustworthy spies’, ‘listening to the buzzing in the woodwork’, ‘conversation by headset’.
  7. The Negotiator-navigator
    • This characteristic was interpreted as the participant outsider or the non- captive insider. While being able to use the language and behaviour of the discourse, they were not captive to any specific interests in the environment.
  8. Direction
  • It appeared at this stage that while the leaders had a clear sense of direction and even an overall end game, they avoided specific targets for the organisation.
  1. Mentors
    • At key stages mentors (older, more experienced individuals) advised, guided and challenged them. This continued well into their ultimate leadership positions.


Together with a very tentative theory, (see Table 2) these themes, with supporting detail and anonymised quotes from all the leaders were sent to each participant. Specific questions were addressed to each of them, in line with theoretical sampling and saturation (Charmaz 2010). Each was asked to reflect and comment on the theory and themes as well as the specific questions. In addition, in an attempt to extend the data on the early or ‚innate’ characteristics, all those who had not spoken of a challenge in early life were asked whether they could recall a specific challenge or “disorienting dilemma” (Mezirow, 2000). Finally, in order to obtain a relatively standardised measure, the research participants were asked to rate how strongly they identified with each theme on a scale of 1 -5, with 5 being the strongest. All but one elected to conduct this final dialogue by phone. The exception was General (G4) who elaborated, challenged and clarified by means of a number of email exchanges.



As Table 3 shows, there was consistently strong identification with the themes. The mean rating for a characteristic was 4.05 (no blame) and the mode was 5. Highest mean rating was 4.9 (for pragmatic, holistic and navigator). What was particularly valuable to the research, however, was that through this final dialogue each participant was not only able to answer the questions put by the researcher but refined their understanding of the terminology and concepts (used by both the researcher and their fellow participants); reflected on and challenged both the thematic constructs and the tentative theory and, unexpectedly, enabled a novel theory on the learning foundations of leaders. As a result of the final reflection, the themes were amended and consolidated into 11. (See Table 4)



The most important change, and one which became a cornerstone of the constructed theory, was to the first characteristic. It became clear that rather than their learning experiences being shaped by ‘disorienting dilemmas’ or ‘eureka moments’, these leaders had developed a stance for navigating their way long before these challenges: the Navigational Stance. The way they dealt with these situations was laid down by the relationship they perceived they had with the world. What also emerged was that this relationship was not identified as innate but was experientially learned. It was from this stance that the behaviours and characteristics of these leaders emerged.

The Navigational Stance


The Leaders all related experiences in their early lives that taught them that the world, even under very difficult circumstances was ‘a manageable place.’

Academic A1 described his early background in the Caribbean – within a supportive and respectful community and a father who was considered such a success that the island could not contain his ambition to do better. In his experience it was this support and ability to manage the world that enabled him to deal with the British school authorities placing him in a remedial class when he could not read – not realising that he had not yet been to school.

A2 learned at a very early age that if she wanted to be of value in a community which did not value girls, she needed to provide the family and community something they lacked and would set great store by: reliability, seriousness and rationality.

General G4, sent to boarding school at a very age while his parents were living and working in foreign posts, learned that it was vital for him to develop diverse relationships in diverse contexts. These contexts ranged from school to the various relatives with whom he spent school holidays.

CEO C2 learned to manage the burden of relative poverty –a girl on ‘free school meals’ in a middle class community. Her way out was by developing valued technical skills that provided both wealth and respect.

All the leaders, in exploring their early lives, found that they had the capacity to make space for themselves in the world; to balance themselves with the world. Although not verifiable by this research it appears logical to assume that they were able to do so because their early family context was at best supportive and at worst neutral. As a result they developed a perception that the power relationship between them and their world(s) was sufficiently balanced to be manageable. This assumption is what we call the “Navigational Stance”. General G2 called it (from the sailing term) his “orientating position” from which he sees his direction and goals and the ways to navigate through.

The Navigation Template


Because this Navigational Stance worked for them, these leaders went on to develop and hone supporting behaviours into characteristics and skills that enabled them to continue managing the world. They learned experientially that these characteristics were interlinked and were, as Academic A1 put it, “Always present – with different weighting according to the circumstances.This composite set of skills we have called the “Navigation Template”. (see Table 4)

Resultant propositions and Theory-in-progress


The developing theory that emerged from the analysis was articulated as follows:


Successful top leaders experience their learning through a ‘navigational stance’ which they develop early in life and which assumes a manageable co-productive partnership with their world. They go on to experientially develop a composite ‘navigation template’, which, if consistently applied, enables them to maximise the effectiveness and sustainability of that partnership.




The situating of the literature review in a grounded theory research is a subject of ongoing debate. Some theorists, including Glaser (1978) feel that the review should be presented after the analysis to avoid tainting the data. This researcher agrees with Charmaz (2010), that one cannot ever be theoretically agnostic. Therefore the literature review was undertaken before the analysis. However, as interpretation of the data ventured into areas beyond experiential learning, this discussion will also briefly include further literary and historical references


A relevant historical figure is that of Nelson Mandela. Like Academic A1, Mandela was born into a strong supportive community the respect he was accorded as a member of the royal Thembu household was balanced the respect he experienced for the community leaders while listening “to their wealth of wisdom and experience.” (Mandela 2010, p.52). It was this “sense of both trust and power” (Daloz, 2000, p.107) that was the basis of his navigational stance and characterised his learning as lawyer, head of Umkonto We Sizwe, political prisoner and his country’s first democratic president. He, like the leaders in this research, were able to ‘do business’ with the world (including the apartheid head of state) from a position of power and trust – even when held in one of their prisons. His Navigation Template –the characteristics and behaviours he honed to support his stance – are arguably aligned with those of these leaders. (See Table 4)


It could be argued that the navigational stance has characteristics of “the life scripts” of transactional analysis (Berne, 1972) as well as attachment theory (Bowlby, 1988). The influence of parents may well be significant to the development of the Navigational Stance. However, this theory stresses the child’s assumption of its capacity to act with the world. Specifically, it proposes that successful leaders assume a balanced relationship; the capacity to act with rather than over or against the world. Piaget’s core concept of “equilibration majorante (progressing equilibration)” (1977) also resonates with this theory. For Piaget, children progress developmentally by continuously balancing their assumptions with the information received from the world; a stabilising process. For these leaders it would appear to be a continuous search for learning more effective ways to navigate the world.

These leaders experienced at an early age that in order to successfully navigate their world they need to work with it. They did not cut themselves off from the world –even in times of severe crisis. General G2 went into a period of reflection, which he called ‘hiding’ (Barden, 2015, p.124), after the sudden death of his father but he re-emerged to re-engage with the world relatively quickly and very decisively. Academic A2 (Barden, 2015) used her stance and template to engage with the world when she was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant. She neither caved in nor flatly resisted the pressure of the medical profession to abort. She explored the options, researched the status quo, and holistically explored the contexts and linkages. She made her decision in accordance with her learned stance.

The data in this research shows that these leaders learned very early that their capacity to act was maximised within a balanced relationship with the world rather than a dominant one over the world. If Academic A2 had tried to impose herself on the community and family that did not ‘value girls”, she would have lost. Instead she alerted herself to its needs and created her space within it. General G1, as a “small, thin, sick but intelligent” child (Barden, 2015, p.122) learned that in order to avoid being bullied at school, he gave the physically stronger boys what they valued: “I would assist them with their lessons in exchange for their being my guard” (p.122). it was only when that did not work anymore – when the context had changed – that he decided to take matters into his own hands and punch a bully.

When CEO C3 strayed into the role of dominant ‘alpha girl’ in the 6th grade, she inevitably opened the door to being bullied by a more powerful alpha girl, which of course restricted her capacity to act. (Barden, 2015, pp.121-122) She learned the lesson to work with the world.

In the examples described so far, these leaders displayed a number of the navigation template characteristics: Navigation (working with the world); strong pragmatism (doing the best possible); no attachment to failure (G1 did not see being ‘small and thin’ as being a failure but as a reality to be dealt with); socialised decision making (A2); reality and holism (A2; C3; G1) and direction not dogma (A2, C3, G1). All the leaders had an enhanced awareness of what is called here ‘the ecosystem’ of their leadership; both the whole and the contexts that link that whole. General G4 was probably the most alert to this holism. His extraordinary analysis of war as the changing and enforcing text within the evolving political and economic context is a testament to this alertness. As he points out, where government or the military fail to understand the fluidity of the partnership between context and text, then both face defeat. On a personal level, he illustrated that holistic awareness (as well as a number of other Navigation Template characteristics) when he was blown up in Northern Ireland. When asked by this researcher whether he had learned a lesson, he told this researcher that the enemy needed to be engaged as a sentient being rather as “the enemy’. When pressed further as to why he had not reacted by thinking, “the enemy was a total bastard that needs to be wiped out” he replied, “These are not alternatives – he was a sentient murderous bastard – the important thing to learn or realise was he was sentient and would react to your actions to his perceived advantage”. This was a clear expression not only of his alertness to the context of the war he was fighting but of his acute understanding of the contextual nature of relationships. (Barden, 2015, pp.125-126).

It is hopefully clear that the template itself is interlinked –with the characteristics ever present but dialled up as required. For example, in order to navigate effectively one needs to be both supremely alert to the changing channels as well as to the impact of those changes within the eco-system. In order to be alert to changes, one needs to be alert to the capacity of one’s constituents and to listen to the views of mentors who have been there before. In order to be fully alert to one’s own assumptions and the veracity of others, one needs to expose oneself and others to challenge and socialise decision making (as all did). And finally, because these leaders held as their primary value, managing with the world rather than imposing themselves on it, they were always immensely pragmatic – to the point of changing targets if they were no longer “the best possible”.

A significant by-product of their Navigation Template was that these leaders appeared to neither change nor stability driven. Because of their holistic approach, they focused on the requirements of their organisations and the ‘job’ rather than their own emotional or competitive needs.   General G4, despite experiencing both extraordinary intellectual challenges and exotic postings did not find it problematic to return to the routine of the ‘normal’ job. Both Academics A1 and A2 made changes that were more appropriate to their organizations than to their own careers. Both C3 and Academic A3 were singularly alert to the capacity of their stakeholders for change even when those changes encouraged and even demanded by their respective boards. The comment ‘I needed to make my mark on this company/institution’ that this researcher has heard many times as coach (and indeed may well have made himself as a corporate leader) was largely absent from the dialogue with these leaders

Limitations and future research


The main limitations to this research may relate to generalisability, gender and culture/ethnicity.

Clearly this research cannot, at this stage, be generalised beyond the experiences of these 10 leaders. Although this qualitative study generated significant data that was consistent across the sample, the theory itself remains untested beyond this sample. Useful future research could involve the correlation of more diverse navigational stances with the navigation template. How would accompanying templates complement less power- balanced stances? Would they act to enforce or mask characteristics? Can this stance and template – applicable to these successful leaders – be used to identify future successful leaders?

This research did not specifically attempt to balance for gender. It was not the aim of this programme to compare and contrast the differences between the learning and experiences of men and women leaders. This may be a limitation although it is argued that articulating the specific issues and problems encountered by these women was fully enabled by the research question. Hence A2 was able to talk about her navigation stance being linked to her managing the fact that girls were not valued in her community. CEO C2 spoke about the difficulty of networking as a woman. “Professional networking as a woman is not… Is not desirable except that you stay sober, and you can’t be seen… I’m always conscious of the fact that if I do talk to a man for too much sometimes it gets misconstrued, either by them or by others.” (Barden, 2015, p. 174). However, the issue of gender did not appear to materially affect the commonality of the themes in the Navigation Template.


Similarly, the question of ethnic origin was enabled by the research question while not specifically explored as a differentiator. A1 certainly knew he was in a country (1960’s Britain) where racial prejudice was significant but his navigational stance had been formed where he was respected, and supported in his community. If he was to be discriminated against (as he certainly was) it was not because he was ‘inferior or downtrodden’; the alien system made a mistake. If it took him 49 applications to be appointed deputy head teacher, he did not assume he was a failure but that the ‘system had made a mistake’.

What may be useful for future research in both gender and ethnicity is to enquire whether there is commonality in the stances formed by women and/or people of different ethnic origins before they are identified as leaders. This could involve researching individuals as children followed by further work at the start of their careers.

Finally, in this brief discussion, it may well be a limitation of this research that it focused entirely on leaders within ‘western’ organizations. The principal reason for this was that the author’s own coaching practice is mainly concerned with leaders in this sector. However, it is also argued that, in a global economy, it is extremely difficulty to characterise organisations as belonging to a particular geographical model. How many so-called western organisations were influenced by the Japanese model of management? (Pascale & Athos, 1982; 1986). Is Jaguar an Indian or British company? The cross pollination of military training, whether by including foreign cadets at Sandhurst or by despatching multinational instructors to Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan must influence both teacher and student. Future researchers may, however, find it useful to look at whether the cultural values of particular countries and/or religions may further influence the development of different navigational stances and templates.

Implications for leaders and coaching practice


If one accepts the findings of this research– that these successful leaders all learned a navigational stance that assumed that they were in a manageably balanced relationship of power with the world –and if one accepts further that these successful leaders developed and honed characteristics that confirmed that power balance, then the question for any coach has to be “ how do I coach leaders to be successful?” One cannot do so by modelling the Navigational Template because we have no idea whether it has been developed to reinforce or mask the original stance. A coach would therefore be prudent to first try and understand the client’s Stance and then attempt to construct the relationship between it and current behaviours/characteristics. The implication of that is that coaching leaders to be successful is a holistic process. One can, by all means, coach to emulate processes (of delegation or prioritisation) but that has more to do with functional training in process than with enabling the experiential learning and self-awareness of leadership.

Another implication of accepting these findings is that if these successful leaders assume a stance that they are balanced in power with the world – and not dominant or subject to it – then a crucial factor for their success must be their skill at dealing with, rather than imposing on, the world.

These leaders, it is argued, developed these characteristics to reinforce a stance they found useful and successful: that they were in reasonable equilibrium with the world and could do business with it. The impact for coaches is that they will be working within a paradigm that is currently not accepted. Top leaders are assumed to be dominant and imposing; that they take decisions on their own, drive others before them and are, above all, fiercely competitive. These findings show that leaders’ strength and vision comes not from imposing and domineering but from, at least, “presencing” as Scharmer (2007, p.39) put it. Trying to persuade not only leaders but their corporate development advisors that success, change, innovation comes from “working with the world’ rather than dragging it along is not to be underestimated. Trying to persuade clients and buyers that effective leaders do not compete but focus on the success of their organisation is almost counter-intuitive. These successful leaders do not compete against a rival because beating that rival may not equate to (and may in fact distract from) the success of their institution.

It is not a coincidence that dominance of monothematic corporate leaders –driving fiscal growth, maximum shareholder or investment returns – has co-existed with significant economic volatility, “by far the deepest recession in five decades” and arguably the weakest recovery from a recession in the developed world. (Kose, Loungani & Terrones, 2012)








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About the author

Stephen Barden is a coach-mentor specialising in board level organisational leaders and their successors. He works mostly in the UK, the US and Germany. Dr Barden was a corporate CEO in the media and technology sectors prior to joining the coaching profession.


[1] Contactable at Stephen Barden Coaching Limited, stephen@stephenbarden.org

[2] At the end of May 2015, “amazon.com” listed just short of 140,000 books on “leadership”. In the same time period, entering the same search term on Google produced 471 million results – an increase of 12 million in 2 years. A search on Amazon for books on (specifically) ‘leaders’ produced nearly 84,000 results.


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Trust the Process of the Heart

All our fear is lodged in trying to control the future. We anticipate a recurrence or absence of an event  in the future. Even when in physical pain, we don’t fear the agony we are going through now. We suffer through it  and try and manage it. But what makes us anxious is that it may go on for ever – or a week. And then our thought is “I won’t be able to cope with that. Not another week of this. Not another moment.” What we forget is that we are coping. We are managing. Even if we are doing so with massive doses of painkillers or therapy, we are managing the present pain. The last thing we need is the additional burden of anxiety or fear that comes with trying to anticipate the future.

Yet we do it all the time. We try and manage the future of our bank accounts, our children, our businesses and even our souls. And by doing so we fail to clearly see the present. And what you don’t clearly see, you cannot manage.

“Trust the Process”

Eric Parsloe – the man who was my first Coaching Mentor – used to say, “Trust the process”. I thought he meant ‘trust the coaching process’. But I now think he meant, ‘trust the process of life.’ We know that life will bring us what life brings: encounters. Those encounters may harm or help us. They may add or subtract. Depending on how they interact with our view of the world, they may bring us joy, grief, pain or comfort. The word process comes from the Latin Procedere, ‘to go on, continue.’ It’s the fact of continuing life interacting with you.  It’s no good trying to jump ahead and anticipate how you will interact with it in the future. That depends on how you interact with it now. It’s like trying to build a house by constantly skipping the block in front of you.

Does that mean we shouldn’t take care at all? We should spend all our money now? Don’t lock the front door? Of course not. I will not spend all my money now because if I do so I am making myself broke now. If I don’t lock my front door, I am putting myself in a position now whereby I am vulnerable now. Never mind tomorrow or later in the evening, my vulnerability starts now. If that’s what I want to do, that’s fine. But my action now has consequences now.

The problem with anticipating and trying to control the future is that you simply fail to fully address the present. By trying to control the future, you create a personal model of that future that will, by definition, differ from reality.

“At least give yourselves a chance”

A company I know would, each year, build its annual forecast by deciding what income it thought it needed to achieve and then set its sales targets accordingly. When I asked the leaders whether they thought they had the products, market demand, distribution capacity and delivery to achieve that income, the reply was “We have no option. That’s what we need to achieve.” And year after year, their distribution system failed them, their production was late and they failed to change their customer research. And year after year I (and others) would plead, “At least give yourselves a chance. If you’re going to set a target, at least make sure that your assets are prepared today (and every day) to hit it.”  The company went into liquidation recently.

Filtering your view of life is dangerous. It’s what made that company go bust; it’s what fuelled the global financial crisis -and every one before that.

The toughest organ we have

But there is one filter I am learning we must have. It’s the Filter of the Heart. Very recently a Reiki therapist, a young woman called Susan Haberlandt, said to me, “Whatever you’re about to do, try putting your heart filter on it first”. So I did. I tried looking at the world through my heart. Sometimes it worked; sometimes I grew impatient and used my head; sometimes I grew impatient and just did it. But sometimes, something happened: I took a tough decision that I had been dreading; I saw just how vulnerable an aggressive man really was; I stopped feeling guilty; I started feeling concerned.

The heart is not a fluffy, pink cushion. It’s the toughest organ we have. It pumps blood to and from every tissue in your body. Symbolically or actually it ‘knows’ every particle in your brain, your gut and your left toe. It has helped fuel your thinking, your instinct, your immunity and your recovery from illness. So when you filter your actions with your heart, you equip that action with everything you have: everything you have been taught consciously, everything you have experienced and absorbed; and everything with which you came into this life. That’s not just powerful; that’s herculean.

We know how to filter our actions and reactions with the head: the logic of connections. “If the client wants me to extend the coaching programme, then I must think about what my code of ethics and my supervisor say about ‘dependency’.” Then there is the filter of instinct: the drive to survival. “Another year of coaching will bring me $x. I really need the money. I’ll do it. And anyway, if he wants more coaching, that means he needs it”.

What would the heart say? What would it tell you about what all that is you  thinks is right, and not just your association’s code of ethics. What would it tell you about what would be best for the client, without your fear for your own future?

The Lens of the Heart

The filter of the heart is not a filter at all. It’s a lens that pulls together all that we are, to deal – in the sharpest focus that we can muster – with the world we inhabit. It may be worth while learning how to use it. If you do try, you may find (as I did) 5 things:

  1. There’s nothing ‘magical’ about it. What you’re doing is mustering all your appropriate resources to focus on a decision
  2. The more you consciously think about it the less it works (you’re using your filter of logical connections)
  3. The more you worry about whether it will work, the less it works (you’re trying to control the future and not managing the present)
  4. The more you try it the more effective it becomes (you access more resources)
  5. The more you try it, the less time and effort you have left to worry about ‘the future’. You’re dealing with it now.
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leaders blinded by their own light

Did Icarus die because of his joy of flying or because of his triumphalism? Did the sun melt his wings because of his immersion in the exuberance of flight or because of his high fiving, fist bumping, “nothing can stop me now” exhilaration? If it had been purely the joy of flying, his senses would have been wide open and alert to everything around him, including any signs of danger. Whereas, if nothing ‘could stop him now’, then why be alert to anything?

Hubris, it appears, has one severe disadvantage: it makes you blind.

The word hubris  was first used, we think, by Aristotle who talked of it as being the abuse of power over others: where one who has been favoured by fortune then proceeds to abuse the less favoured. It went on to be seen as testing oneself against the gods – which they, in their jealousy, then stamped on very promptly indeed.

But what’s wrong with continuously testing the limits? We do it all the time. We’re just about to discover the ‘God particle’; the first trace of matter (first, that is, until we predict another elementary particle) and we now can capture images with shutter speeds equal to that of light. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. Nothing at all. Long may we continue to learn and re-discover our universe.

The danger comes when we think that we can do it all ourselves; that our achievements are solely our own; that nothing can stop us now. Because that’s when we stop looking around us. That’s when we’re blinded – by our own light.

Everything we do, everything we know, started before us and will continue after we have gone. The knowledge that Stephen Hawking,  Albert Einstein, Francis Crick and Plato had was built on the shoulders of those who came before them and served as the base for the knowledge that came afterwards. Yes, Archimedes put together all his learning and skill to come up with the measurement of mass – but he was helped by where he was: by the fact that he was getting into the bath. There’s nothing mystical or magical about it: he was getting into a bath, saw how his body displaced its equivalent in water, put two and two together and came up with 64,000. And what did he say? “Eureka”! Not “I found it”, as we tend to translate it nowadays but “I am in a state of having found it”.

So what produced the discovery? His being in a state to discover; his alertness to discovery. Yes, his unique skill played a great role but only in combination with the learning that had disciplined and enriched him; the experience that had shaped and given him confidence; and the context and circumstances within which he was now acting. An absence of any one of those factors (and a few hundred more) could have stopped him from jumping up stark naked and yelling his discovery to his neighbours.

Great ‘innovators’ all seem to have one thing in common: they all acknowledge their debt to those who came before them and their links with the world around them. Those who claim they are uniquely responsible for a discovery or even success are at best deceiving themselves and at worst lying.

Either way, they have made themselves blind and risk burning off their wings.

I used to think that the antidote to the hubris virus was balance: not too much joy at success; not too much misery at failure.  What my teachers would have called “good taste”. And then I noticed that I could still be  very smug  indeed while acting with extraordinary decorum.If hubris is a state of unsustainable triumphalism, then how do I keep myself open to the possibility of sustainable discovery and achievement?  I suspect, it does entail a sort of balance but it has less to do with control and more with awareness: awareness of the balance of all the contributors to ‘my’ success.

It is a balance between being totally aware of where I am and what I want to change. It is being in a state of awareness and discovery.

If Icarus had been in that state of awareness and discovery, he would have been able to find the ideal temperature  and altitude for the easiest, safest flight.

How does this apply to leadership?  Some years ago I started advocating a principle called “Leadership from the Centre”: the idea that leaders  are most effective when they are at the centre of a network  from which they are able to have clear access to a wide range of  stakeholders. Equally, they are accessible and visible to the challenges of  those stakeholders. It is, in essence a model for trying to maintain this balance of awareness and discovery. This is not a leader on a white charger who makes all the decisions himself or even with a small cabal of advisors. With this leadership model, decisions are made through intense awareness of the context: through scenario planning, testing or just listening. Each movement  is felt throughout the network as is each success or failure.

I first thought about it when  many of my clients fretted that they were missing some pretty important, if not vital, things going on in their organisations. These were mostly thought of as “strong” individuals who were seen to be leading from the front; a characteristic much treasured by television programmes and some corporations. My question was: if you are leading from the front, pulling the organisation along, how do you know what’s going on behind you?  Or  -as I said earlier in this reflection – you may be putting yourself in a state of discovery (of the future) but what about your state of awareness ( of the present)? How do you know- for example – whether your followers agree with what you’re doing – and that they are not sabotaging you? How do you know that what you’re doing for the organisation actually is good for it?  Are you flying too close to the sun because you’re dazzled by your own light?

It all boils down to one core question: “How, as a leader, do I make sure that I am continuously reminded to be in a state of awareness and discovery? What structures and processes do I need to set up? What relationships do I need to develop? What behaviour do I need to display so that my stakeholders  can not only  challenge me but see it as their duty to do so? And how do I make sure that I  and the organisation keep learning?  Finally, to return to the ancient Greeks, how do I, like the craftiest of all leaders Odysseus, make sure that when the sirens of hubris start singing their irresistible song, I am stopped from following them onto the rocks?

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The Behaviour of Ailing Corporations

I once managed a portfolio company for a private equity firm. Its chairman didn’t teach me many things but he made up for it by by teaching me one big lesson. One day he told me that one of my Exec. Directors had been rude to ‘an outsider’. I apologized and said I would deal with it. “You’re not getting it”, he said. ” What I’m interested in is: what is it about your behaviour that makes him think  he has permission to act in this way”?

I’ve used that story in my coaching for over a decade – ending it with either of these two questions:

” What is it about your behaviour that allows your people to behave in this way?”


“What is it about your organization that gives permission to behave  in this way”?

My experience over the years is that creating space for certain kinds of behaviour can  quickly pervade entire institutions. It  may well be started, tolerated or even ignored by the leadership. More  interestingly, it may be the unforeseen result of a particular focus of business. Focus – human or institutional –  affects the way we see the world which, of course, affects the way we behave in the world.

As leaders, it’s important to reflect not just on how our organizations perform but on how they behave. Not just because  of the ethical contradictions but because neglecting to do so may threaten the entire business or service. How an institution behaves with all its stakeholders is a strong indicator of its state of health.  It is our responsibility to check those symptoms, regularly and honestly, ensuring we always widen our circles of enquiry; what a friend of mine recently called ‘increasing the circles of discomfort’. Don’t mistake the behaviour check as something ‘soft’ or driven by political correctness. The behaviour your colleagues display, both the consistencies and inconsistencies, will have a direct impact on your  purpose and business.

What I focus on, in the world impacts how I see the world; impacts how I deal with the world; impacts how the world sees me; impacts how the world deals with me.

An  institution’s strategic focus dictates what it views as important and what as not . This tends to create behaviour which favours the important as against the unimportant. If my strategic focus is  that my prices must be the lowest in the market, then I will favour those who help me achieve that focus: internal cost cutters,  tough bargaining, internal, buyers and (only) those suppliers who can deliver at the prices I require.  The ones I will not favour are my suppliers’ suppliers; my own staff development and welfare; in fact, anything that may affect my margins.

Now, that’s fine as long as I am aware of  the impact of that cycle of  strategic focus  and behaviour. If the institutional focus is on delivering lowest prices to its customers then that means, in  its behaviour, it may not focus on quality or even reliability of delivery. It will certainly mean it will not focus on the quality of life and welfare of its suppliers’ sub contractors. It may even try and minimise the costs of its waste disposal and environmental provision. And, if price is king, then customer service – which may be directly related to (costly) staff training and (costly) staff welfare – will be pauper. 

“Listen, you’re getting it cheap. What do you want? A smile or a damn bargain? Take your pick”.

Result?  You become linked with sweat shop labour; you get attacked for polluting the local environment (where  your customers live); your staff get grumpy and leave – or, worse still – get very grumpy and stay. Your customers dislike coming into your outlets and decide “You know what? I know the store down the road is 10c more expensive but at least it’s clean and I get treated like a human being”.

You may well end with no customers to offer your lowest prices to – or at least not in the volumes where they are viable.

How your company behaves to any one section of its stakeholders offers the world a window into its soul: its values, priorities, limitations, aspirations and ability to reach its outcomes.

As CEO of a technology company I once visited a media corporation to discuss a potential supply contract. I had a genuine interest in securing a contract but I also knew that our group wanted to buy it. So I was very interested to see what their behaviours could tell me. They kept me waiting for over an hour, they didn’t bother to even address my two associates  (clearly considering  them way too beneath them) and they  told me that they would only consider our technology if we agreed to an unsustainable price and terms. They did not – they declared – like my company or the group we belonged to but they would work with us at the ‘right price’.

We were a supplier of key technology that we would be obliged to  maintain to very precise standards  to ensure minimal disruption over at least five years. That required satisfactory terms and a trusting relationship. And yet they treated us as if we were a one off. Either they didn’t understand their own business or the business itself was less important than an exit from it. If exit was their target then my suspicion was that their customer offering would be just enough to get them by. After I left the building I found out that both content and customer service were  spartan. Churn  (customers leaving the service) was worryingly high. Because the focus was on exit,  I guessed attention to staff relationships, let alone staff development and quality of life, would be scant. Hence, their rudeness to my associates. All was confirmed later:   staff  skills, morale and loyalty were abysmal as were organisational and structural development. This was a company that existed for no other reason than to enrich a small group of people through its sale. It was hollow inside. Without doing anything more than observing behaviour in a meeting and making a few discreet enquiries later on, I discovered that this company a) was not worth very much as a going concern and b)  could not afford to hold out ‘for the right price’ for  long before  its losses and hollowness became very public.

Neither the behaviours of the media executives and the grumpy store cashiers, nor the impact they provoked were intentional – or even understood – by the company. But they were a logical (arguably, an inevitable) consequence of  the strategic focus: the organization’s view of the world.

All organizations betray their true focus by their behaviours.

The problem is compounded by the fact  is that these behaviours normally happen over a period of time within a very specific environment: a perfect setting for the boiling frog syndrome. The water is heated up  so gradually and gently that the frog fails to realise he is boiling.

Some institutions do try and check for the problem obliquely; most often by a ‘values’ exercise. A set of corporate values and standards of behaviour are identified or retrieved and staff are reminded (in workshops, pamphlets, posters and so on) of  the aspirations, priorities and acceptable behaviours. They are usually fruitless because the behaviour and values to support the institutional strategy are not those the company espouses.

If the investment bank’s values  speak of behaving with respect and integrity towards each and every client but its strategy focuses on maximising short term return from those clients, then ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’ will make a swift exit.

In legal terms, a corporation is a persona; it behaves, has authority and takes responsibility much like an individual. If  an individual’s behaviour contradicts his espoused values, profession, role or even image, we  may consider that person to be untrustworthy or even ill.

So it is with organizations.

Institutions – in my view – need to embark regularly on a  process that reviews the alignment of their strategic focus with their behaviours.

The TOTAL STRATEGY: the starting point is to develop, understand and clearly model the  strategy in very pragmatic terms; not just financially but the Total Strategy,  in terms of their organisation,offering, resources and stakeholders (what are we offering, with what, to and with whom, to what end?).

MODEL THE IMPACT:  develop and model a range of scenarios of  the possible impact of the Total Strategy on all internal and external stakeholders. ( If my strategic focus is to offer cheapest airfares on the market, what impact could that have on my staff training and therefore my quality of service?)

STRATEGY BALANCE:  Review what is a ‘must have’ in addition to your original strategic focus: I want to be the lowest cost provider with excellent customer service and reliable suppliers. So how ‘low cost’ am I prepared to be?

BENCHMARK AND MANAGE:  the competences,  skills, behaviours, values, structures, processes,  resources and risks that align with that balanced strategy.

CHECK THE SYMPTOMS: check your organizational behaviours regularly with your stakeholders; risking more and more discomfort as you go along. If  you don’t risk discomfort, the chances are you’re playing  it safe with your questions and your target group -and you then risk being very miserable indeed when you start boiling.

If you would like some help in identifying whether your organization’s behaviours threaten your strategy – or if you’d like to discuss the Total Strategy Programme, please contact me at stephen@stephenbarden.org

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