April 06, 2022

A New Chapter For Leaders

I used to think the idea of leadership training was boring. And at times, it certainly can be. But there's an exciting shift happening that's impacting all of us. To understand it, we need to take a quick look at the history...

Before Powerpoint Presentations...
First, over the past 3,000 or so years, there's been three major "chapters" of learning to lead at work:

  • Chapter 1, Authority First: This was developed in the time of priests and warriors. Clear leadership, consequences for falling out of line, and rewards for doing what you were told.

  • Chapter 2, Production First: As the Industrial Revolution emerged, so did the need for companies to scale their operations. There were the doers (agents), and the organizers (managers). Everything was about optimizing for greater output. In industries like steel, food, and consumer products, "leadership" was entirely focused on how much could be produced at a high enough level of quality. You were rewarded for efficiency — which has been notoriously harmful to workers.

  • Chapter 3, Knowledge First: As ideas behind management and leadership began receiving more attention, research institutions were developed (Wharton, Harvard Business Review, etc). Management was becoming more than a job, it was a discipline. The field was flooded with research and new theories. Gurus started surfacing (oh hey, Peter Drucker). Important intersections between sociology, psychology, and statistics began emerging. And thanks to technology, the idea of a pure "knowledge worker" — someone who added value to society by wielding information — was cemented into our economy. You were rewarded for your ideas and critical thought.

    Because of this shift, the value placed on the individual became much, much higher. Experts were linchpins for organizations. And the research was clear: the best way to engage and retain those workers was through connection, values-based leadership, and incentives that transcended traditional compensation.

Now, a new chapter — Experience First:
If Authority was about control, Production about scale, Knowledge about expertise, then this chapter is Experience, and it's about the collective.

With our world feeling the weight of greater environmental threats and geo-political unrest, rapid change across all aspects of production, and mental health at all-time lows, the workforce is starving for opportunities to reconnect with one another and ourselves on a deeper level.

Experience First
management & leadership revolves around both individual and community growth. It mixes the pursuit of knowledge and understanding with opportunities to experience the challenges firsthand, together. It creates extra space for practice and reflection prior to further action. And it connects with learners and employees on a more human level.

All of this combined helps individuals, companies, and the communities they serve consider the longer-term impact of our work on the planet and the people around us. Now, you’re rewarded for the culture you create, the impact you spark, and the way you make people feel through your work.

Not Optional

The first three chapters are still in play. But the shift to Experience First is already happening. We’re seeing it in the Great Resignation, the growing desire to work beyond a singular office space, and personal motivations towards more play, adventure, and connection. And it’s continued with employees requesting more space to not only become better at their jobs, but also to contribute to a better world.

Experiential modes of development throughout work will take many forms. They will look like onboarding processes that provide opportunities for more human connection. They will include more intentional team offsites and retreats. And they will invite project-based learning opportunities, and even fresh takes on sabbaticals and rotational programs.

Any and all of these efforts will take an investment that will feel grand at first, but will pay great dividends in employee health, empathetic teamwork, and products/services that have the long game in mind.

How can you support more experiential learning in your work and world today? The teams that can answer that question will be the best to work for and with.

Illustration by Emil Wikström

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