Facebook Pixel large image

Sign up for our FINAL in-person Workshop of 2024 in London! CLICK HERE


10 Tips for (Experiential) Leadership Programme Design

Maximising Leadership Opportunities on an Experiential Leadership Programme


by Roger Greenaway, Reviewing Skills Training

One of the main challenges in designing leadership training courses (especially short ones) is to create enough opportunities for each individual to have several turns as leader. Courses for developing teamwork skills are more straightforward because participants are always part of the team, but on leadership courses each individual only experiences leadership when it is their turn to be leader. And on short courses, participants may only have one experience of leadership.

  • So what can be done to increase the proportion of the time in which each individual is a leader?
  • And what can be done to increase the number of times that each individual can experience leadership within a course?

Before listing my ten tips in answer to these questions, let me spell out two key reasons why these issues are so important.

  • Limited opportunities for leadership
    Having only one opportunity for leadership for each participant on a leadership training programme is putting all your eggs in one basket - it is high risk. It is high risk for the participant because there is so much at stake. They will receive feedback from their peers based on this one opportunity to be a leader. Worse still, their one and only opportunity to lead may not be very successful and their behaviour may not be very typical. This will produce feedback that is negative, superficial or irrelevant. Also the quality of feedback from peers is unlikely to be as good in the first half of the course as it is in the second half. Those who lead first may get a poor deal. If each individual gets only one opportunity for leadership, it is high risk for the course provider too. It is a bit hit and miss whether that one single opportunity brings out anything like the true leadership potential of each participant. In such circumstances it is difficult for the course provider to fulfil the reasonable expectations of clients and participants.
  • A weak model of experiential learning
    Witnessing others being leaders is not experiential learning. Only by being a leader can participants learn from the experience of being a leader. Clearly you can learn about leadership by watching others lead, but that is not learning by experience. Watching others lead has some merits but is a less effective learning model for developing leadership skills.

Here are some design strategies to help you maximise leadership opportunities in your training programmes. The calculations below assume that the strategy being described is sustained for a whole programme. This is not a recommended course of action - it is simply an easy way of illustrating potential time savings. The best course designs will have a mix of a number of different strategies. Consider each of these ten possibilities:

  1. Dividing a group into two subgroups doubles the number of opportunities for leadership. This has the extra advantage of creating the possibility for comparing how different leaders tackle similar tasks. Also feedback to leaders takes less time in smaller groups.

  2. Using co-leaders rather than solo leaders also doubles the number of opportunities for leadership. In some cases this will more closely mirror how leadership actually happens in the workplace.

  3. Using three leaders for each project triples the number of leadership opportunities. This can also be a good way for participants to experiment with different leadership models if each leader takes on a specific leadership role. For example, if using Adair's Action Centred Leadership Model, each leader can pay attention to one of the three elements of the model: task, team or individuals. In a similar way, having different leaders for the beginning, middle and end of a project allows participants to experiment with different leadership styles within the Situational Leadership model. Particular leadership styles may be more suited to different stages of a project.

  4. Working in pairs creates five times more opportunities for leadership in a group of ten. This may also mirror how leadership is performed in the workplace - through one to one meetings, phone conversations etc. Paired exercises in which one person is blindfolded, or in which pairs are not in visual contact, can be used to generate a useful range of leadership challenges and experiences.

  5. Take it in turns to lead reviews. On programmes where there is a 50/50 split between activity time and review time, you can double the opportunities for leadership if people take it in turns to lead reviews. It often turns out that review discussions mirror the workplace environment more closely than do the activities which are being reviewed. And many meetings at work have 'reviewing' items on the agenda anyway. Reviews provide a golden opportunity for some very relevant leadership experience! (You then need to review the review, but even this can be led by a participant.)

  6. Reviewing experiences of leadership that happened prior to the course. The benefit here is that you do not need course time to provide leadership experiences - so it saves approximately 50% of the time (if the course typically has a 50/50 split between activity and review). Other group members may not have witnessed these examples of leadership, but what matters most is that these examples are real experiences of leadership - and they might be much more real and significant than the leadership experiences that happen within a training course. The key to this strategy is adopting a suitable reviewing method. Further timesaving can be achieved by reviewing in subgroups or pairs.

  7. Using mini-leadership projects of less than five minutes. In less than an hour each member of the group can experience a whole group leadership role. My favourite exercise using this strategy requires each person to use the whole group in a demonstration of what they each mean by good teamwork. How they each approach this task reveals a lot in a short time about their leadership style as well about their understanding of teamwork. This exercise works best if it is presented as an exercise about teamwork.

  8. Creating a leadership challenge in which each individual has the opportunity to step up and try out a different leadership strategy. I have only used this strategy as a role play exercise, but it could be used in real situations too. As a role play exercise, pairs take it in turns to be the rule-breaking worker and the rule-enforcing manager. Workers should allow managers a 50/50 chance of being successful.

  9. Exploring the definition of leadership in a way that makes people realise that everything they do and say in a group influences others whether or not they are an assigned leader. Priming a group in this way means that everyone is continually on the lookout for examples of leadership within the group. This creates a richer environment for learning about leadership and makes people aware of both assigned and informal leadership.

  10. Making links between leadership and the transfer of learning. In order to transfer learning from any training course it often requires the learner to take a lead to make things happen. This is doubly true if they are transferring learning about themselves as leaders. By framing the transfer of learning as a leadership exercise (thus making it leadership about leadership) you are doubling the value of the transfer process and increasing the chances that it will happen.

Instead of designing a programme in a way that provides just one opportunity per person for leading a team, you can now design a programme of the same duration that will provide at least three leadership experiences per person. On their first go at leadership, participants may learn how they come across as a leader. On their second go, they can try something different. On their third go, they can practise something they want to use back in the workplace.

A well designed combination of strategies will create more and better opportunities for learning to lead. Of even greater significance is the fact that many of the strategies outlined above have a much closer resemblance to what leadership is actually like back in the workplace. This increases the relevance of the leadership training exercises while also improving the chances that what is learned about leadership is successfully transferred and implemented.

Copyright © Roger Greenaway, Reviewing Skills Training, 2004

You may also like