The most important idea for driving the teaching of the leadership in the 21st Century isn’t a particular teaching method. It’s an outcome. And the pursuit of this goal — developing resilience — should inform everything we choose to do in the leadership learning environments we create..
The concept of grit receives increasing attention in the field of early childhood development. The strains of poverty take a huge toll on low-income children, affecting the development of executive brain function. Coping with the immediate threats posed by a lack of resources limits one from learning to stay attentive and regulate behavior. It’s becoming increasingly clear from research and books, such as Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed,” that we need interventions that support the development of perseverance skills, including optimism, curiosity and self control, that pave the way for success in adulthood.
The idea that even fully developed, highly achieving adults exercising leadership might learn something from the developmental challenges poor children are overcoming might seem counterintuitive at first. But the climate for leadership, be it on the local or global level, increasingly calls upon individuals to foster progress on messy, deeply entrenched problems that defy a single, obvious solution and involve a diverse contingent of stakeholders with perspectives that rarely have much overlap. We call these problems adaptive challenges or wicked problems. They too are incredibly stressful and disorienting to deal with because they invite failure at nearly every turn. They are situations for which we have a not only a poverty of answers, but little sense about which direction to turn.
The traditional leadership teaching of our past — which tends to limit itself to intellectual discussions and focuses on efficiency and the skilled use of authority — does very little to prepare individuals for the rigors of facing these complex problems. We need to employ methods that both challenge and support and provide opportunities for adult learners to develop their abilities to deal with conflict, hold steady under fire and practice the very skills they will need to move the needle with others on adaptive dilemmas.
The key to doing this rests on finding the right combination of approaches to help adults grow in their mental development and reach a “level of mind,” to use the words of Harvard’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, that allows them to deal more effectively with increasingly complex challenges.
Case-in-Point, which transforms the classroom into a laboratory for wrestling with adaptive challenges, represents one important way to help participants experience leadership challenges rather than merely think about them. Other methods, such one-on-one leadership coaching, peer consulting and exercises like Kegan’s and Lahey’s Immunity to Change process can help individuals identify and work on area at the edge of their competency or address a deep-seated barrier to their own leadership. Other experiential methods, from simulation to case study teaching, may also help learners apply leadership ideas and provide a bridge between understanding them and practicing them in real life.
The art of developing resilience as teachers, coaches or facilitators requires a
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dance of both push and pull so that learners stretch themselves without reaching a breaking point. The catch is that it’s extremely to difficult to teach resilience to others unless you are developing some yourself. Some degree of trial and error is as important to the skilled teaching of leadership as it is to addressing adaptive challenges. Teachers will have to develop grit of their own along with fostering it in their participants.
Resilience is the skill that allows for other leadership competencies to become more fully developed and put on display. That means that if we’re not employing approaches to cultivate it in ourselves and others, we are not really teaching the kind of leadership that will be needed to prosper in the 21st Century.