The Little Red Schoolhouse-A Flawed Model for Leadership Development

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John woke up one morning to discover that he was all alone. His teammates had already left for their cruse and the project was only just started. The meeting with the CEO was set and he had presentations to the purchasing department and to legal yet to go. To make it worse he had not received any instructions from his team or from the home office. He knew little of what had happened since he left home because the internet was frequently down here. This was the biggest contract in the history of the organization and he knew the stakes were high, maybe even life or death.

John met with the department heads, stood his ground and negotiated terms that were clearly in the organizations favor. The meeting with the CEO was more contentious and confrontational. The CEO was accustomed to dealing from a position of strength but in this case he was on the loosing end. John had spent over a year working on this deal and was determined to see it to conclusion. He was polite but firm and gained an additional concession concerning logistics in his time with the CEO. With a signed agreement in his hand he left to catch his ride home and instructed the Legal department to have the paperwork messengered over shortly.

If you don’t recognize this John, it is the story of John Adams and the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain in 1782-1783. The CEO was King George III, the most powerful monarch in the world at the time. Adams and his team exercised great leadership and courage in the face of great challenge. Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and Henry Laurens were the other team members. Together they endured over a year of negotiations with no guidance from the Colonies since round trip correspondence took nine months to complete. These leaders learned to be leaders by leading.

The striking conclusion about these leaders is that they developed their leadership approach by being leaders, independent of any educational setting. Today developing leaders has evolved from the “school of hard knocks”, learn while dong, to an event based process that occurs outside the day-to-day leadership challenges that shaped our historic leaders.

What has been created is a vast and influential market segment of organizations ready to

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provide the “Shower of Leadership” experience to emerging leaders so that they can become the John Adams (et.al.) of the future. The result is that we are using an education approach to leadership development (and all other primary and secondary education I might add) that looks a lot like the “Little Red Schoolhouse” that emerged in the 18th century.

The Little Red Schoolhouse worked as a strategy for teaching in rural farm communities reading, writing and arithmetic. The Little Red Schoolhouse is a flawed strategy for developing today’s leaders. What we must develop today are leaders that can build trust, collaborate, communicate, engage and inspire a diverse workforce to see new opportunities, using new technology and new markets to outdistance the competition, and do it while being leaders!

Look at the current process of Leadership Development under the “Little Red Schoolhouse” model. At its core, it is largely based on sending a person to an event, or multiple events (Internal or External) for some number of days. With luck the program teaches sound principles through content and engagement that the individual is then expected to absorb, operationalize and take back to the work place. Keep in mind that only some of the colleagues and other leaders in the individual’s organization have had a similar experience. You don’t have to look far into the research literature to see that the amount of behavior change and leader impact will be limited at best and at worst, nonexistent.

What if whole teams (including the head of the team) could participate together in a process (experience) a journey if you will, that allowed them to grow together over an extended period of time, experience and develop new leadership insights, provide mutual support to each other in their efforts and be guided collectively and individually by a dedicated coach?

What this new model becomes is a collective journey by an intact team to examine leadership as it impacts them personally and organizationally. It provides the vehicle to redefine leadership in terms of relationships and outcomes; it requires that the team develop deep trust in each other and in their leadership; that they be willing to share personal challenges without fear of showing weakness; that they be open to both delving into and revealing significant parts of their personal story and the dream for their legacy.

The significant benefit is that team members support each other in their leadership growth; that they build trusting and lasting relationships and they build communications channels that will endure for lifetimes.

Operationally the benefits are also significant. Whole teams complete leadership development together creating a critical mass that permeates the organization. Supportive groups form and continue to be of value for years to come. Not insignificantly, there is a considerable cost saving in travel, time away and actual event costs. It really is simple to accomplish this vision you just have to abandon the traditional “Little Red School House” approach and embrace a new paradigm.

John Adams didn’t wait to be sent to the “Shower of Leadership” school. He learned by leading both as a diplomat and as our second President.

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