Commentary: How Leadership Programs Can Lead the Way

The aftermath of September 11 demonstrates the importance of training all employees to take charge and make decisions under pressure

By Deepak Sethi

The events following the terrorist attacks on September 11 brought into sharp focus the necessity for basic leadership skills at all levels of society. That may be easy for me to see and say. I'm immersed in leadership development for executives at Thomson Corp., an $6 billion e-information and solutions company in Stamford, Conn. Here, I craft as many as eight leadership-training programs a year for the top 500 executives of Thomson. And it's here in my office in Stamford, steps away from CEO Richard Harrington, that we've recognized that a company's best security against unplanned upheavals isn't its balance sheet, but having skilled leaders at the helm at all levels of the organization.

Peter Drucker, a leading thinker on business and management, once said, "The best way to predict the future is to create it." The question is: Who will create it? Leadership is not widely dispersed within most organizations. Companies tend to see these roles as for privileged few, rather than an opportunity for all. But in this knowledge-based economy, it's becoming increasingly important for many more people to help guide an organization's future. Leadership isn't terribly complex. But it's rarely allowed to blossom fully at most companies. That's because senior executives often believe leadership is synonymous with authority. That's a dated notion, from a time when the practice of leadership was restricted to staff of a certain rank. It's unfortunate that those notions persist. Companies with successful training and development programs now know that some of the basic tenets of leadership, such as self-awareness and the ability to influence others, are easily taught.


  Programs run in-house can offer the best returns. And ones that have the full support and inspiration from the CEO -- in our case leadership development is supported and inspired by Harrington -- fare well. The Thomson Leadership Development Program is designed so we can change on the fly, adding fresh content and involving leading-edge thinkers. When Thomson expanded into more foreign markets, for example, we added a global panel of speakers. We can also tie each program to overall Thomson strategy.

After September 11, we decided to change our October program to include a discussion on emotional intelligence, a Buddhist-like philosophy of leadership that focuses on self-control and reflection. Within these discussions, we look at how Thomson leaders can channel their emotions appropriately, so fewer problems are likely to arise in times of crisis. I also hope to invite experts who can help execs plan for different business and political scenarios and fine-tune their abilities to adapt quickly to changes.

One of my dreams is that companies would be widely considered training grounds for future leaders. And I have seen some changes that keep that hope alive. More and more companies encourage that thinking as they design their own leadership-development programs. In the 10 years I've been in this field, I've noticed a marked shift in how organizations develop their leaders. There has been a move away from past practices, in which corporations would send their high-potential candidates -- hand-picked by managers -- to programs at universities. In-house opportunities can be custom-designed for the company and often are open to a greater number of employees, enabling the company to mine its potential leaders rather than just rewarding its existing ones.


  But building a program isn't easy. In the best, design is paramount. Since people learn differently, every program should have a mix of learning opportunities -- some people take lessons from failure, feedback, and coaching, others from simulating different scenarios in the classroom. Learning by working on real business issues and taking time for reflection can coexist in such programs. A focus on health and relaxation helps participants achieve a better work-life balance. Such innovations and specialization are rarely possible in a university-based program.

After each Thomson Program, I urge participants to transfer their fresh leadership skills to the people who work for them. We've seen New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani receive praise for his leadership grace under pressure. His task has been greatly aided by the firemen, policemen, and other deputies who also exhibited leadership. That should be every leader's goal -- to act as a role model to develop and embed leadership skills deep within an organization. It's everyone's responsibility to engage in leadership behavior.

Unfortunately, in most organizations that is not the reality just yet. What happened on September 11 stands to change the dynamic of leadership development forever -- and for the better. The trend toward developing leaders at all levels should accelerate in the coming months. I call it leading from the middle. For this to happen, people in senior positions must be more reflective, spending much more time with their staff and giving employees real attention.


  It's important for senior managers to serve as coaches to those who work for them. Their main job should be developing people's potential, removing barriers for natural leaders and creating the right climate for leadership skills to flourish throughout the company.

Out of the unfathomable disaster of September 11, we have a chance to find many positives. We need to learn lessons and grow from watching so many examples of natural leadership in the wake of the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We now have to develop leaders who not only will create the future for their organizations but also contribute to the preservation of the free-enterprise system itself. The alternative is unthinkable.

Sethi is vice-president of executive and leadership development at Thomson Corp.

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