What got you here, won't get you there."
It is a well-observed phenomenon that the cut-and-thrust required of executives to manoeuvre themselves into senior positions in large organizations is rarely useful behaviour when they reach the top role. The political awareness still needs to be present – organizations are inevitably political – but a different perspective and broader outlook is required once a person is in the top job.
For the last couple of decades the leadership model has worked outwards across three well-explored concentric rings: leading yourself; leading your team; leading your organization. Recently, with a greater focus on global issues and sustainability of organizations a fourth leadership circle of influence has been added – leading at a societal level. Notably, this is a different perspective, it is not ‘your society’ as in ‘yourself’ or ‘your organization’ – and this gives a clue as to why ‘what got you here, wont get you there’. A different approach is required for leaders at the top of large organizations.
Shlomo Ben-Hur is an organizational psychologist and long-standing professor of leadership at the leading Swiss business school IMD. On a visit to Bali to attend a ‘Ngaben’ traditional cremation ceremony he was struck by the very different way of dealing with death that the Balinese adopt – and by extension he became aware of their different approach to life too. Ben-Hur saw that this presents a powerful metaphor for some of the wider issues executives need to explore when they transition into CEO or Chairman roles – and so a week-long residential visit to Bali has become an integral part of a new senior leadership program at IMD. CLEAR – Cultivating Leadership Energy through Awareness and Reflection - is a program that is spread over 10 months, with three one-week-long residential modules.
CLEAR is unlike any previous leadership program IMD has run. Its long duration coupled with the constant presence of coaches throughout the program and its focus on wider issues of society and culture position it further towards the relational end of the functional-strategic-behavioural spectrum that their development programs typically use.
As Ben-Hur explains, the participants are “experimenting throughout the whole program. A lot of the activities are not your traditional classroom, business school kind of teaching but much more experiential, much more about an inner and outer journey that we're engaging in.” The experimenting is really about exposing these seasoned leaders to new experiences and insights. “Part of what happens to successful people is that they've been very engaged in what they're doing in their lives. And we want to get them closer to the being aspect of it. So, while there is a physical element to it in terms of the participant's physical well-being, there's also a spiritual, mindfulness component that is woven throughout the process in terms of the ability of the leaders to regenerate and to reinvent themselves and to connect to something which is bigger.”
Bali offers an intense variety of contrasts Ben-Hur notes “it is in some ways this wonderful paradise island in Asia. But on the other hand, it is a little island that is wrestling with a tremendous amount of challenges: it's a Hindu island within a Muslim set of islands in Indonesia, it's one that is wrestling with ocean pollution and problems around them; there are poverty and educational issues. We thought that there would be a tremendous amount of exposure to anything from societal and environmental challenges, to mindfulness and a different way of looking at life. And by bringing people to another side of the world and showing that even that side is not as expected, actually surfaces a lot of the diversity and complexity that exists in our world.”
These are insights and activities that few of us, least of all those at the top of organizations that have highly scheduled and ordered calendars, get the space and opportunity to practice and explore. “We want to reduce the noise in their life, because there's a tremendous amount of noise that they're exposed to and they're all reporting that in the preliminary interviews we have had with them” says Ben-Hur.
In that respect the IMD CLEAR program may in part be a high-end version of what others may get from walking in the hills or painting, but the crucial and significant difference is the presence of the faculty, the coaches and other peer-group participants, that can facilitate the dialogue and experiences and share their own insights. This facilitation, dialogue and sharing embeds the participants learning and simultaneously can give them permission and encouragement to adopt new behaviours in respect to how they manage others and the direction they take their businesses on.
Ben-Hur also brings some realism to the ideal many of us have of those operating at these levels, highlighting the isolation that is so often felt when people become a CEO. “Coming from 15 different countries, it's really quite a high-level dialogue and reflection within a community that we're building of people who are quite lonely at the top in many ways. But I hope that what we're doing is we're also establishing a community that is able to tap into each other and to provide support as they go through their challenges in quite a lonely way in their organisations and businesses.”
The CLEAR program is not cheap, and it does take these successful people to some extraordinary places – physically a half-week in a Swiss mountain hut and the week in Bali – but also mentally, to make connections between their responsibilities and some of the wider issues facing society, and doing it amongst others who also are under the same stresses and obligations. By opening up these new perspectives and providing space for the participants to articulate and better understand these connections, the hope is to add an additional layer of purpose and value to the work they are doing, and show positive, sustainable impact for all four elements a leader touches: self, team, organization and society.