Leadership requires emotional literacy and the ability to read situations. This is best learnt experientially. A powerful form of experiential learning for leadership is the group relations conference. By Nick Papadopoulos
Leadership is much more than the bestowal of formal authority by role or institution. It is about finding and developing your authority and capacity to question, to hypothesise, to speak your mind and to take action. It involves knowing when to innovate and when to rely on tradition. Above all, it requires taking ownership and responsibility for the results of your actions.
To do this well requires emotional literacy; that is, the capacity to use all of yourself – feelings, hunches, gut reaction, intuition, as well as thoughts and logic – to make sense of situations and to make decisions. Emotional literacy is also about the ability to collaborate and to learn from experience.
Knowledge of human nature is helpful, but it is of little use without an understanding of how groups and organisations influence people. To take leadership, you must learn about your actual behavior and capabilities in interpersonal, group and organisational situations. This is where the group relations conference, a powerful type of experiential learning for leadership, comes in.
What is a group relations conference?
A group relations conference is a learning event that can offer profound personal insights. The learning is entirely experiential. The experiences created in the conference itself are the raw materials for learning.
It is a misnomer, however, to call these structured gatherings “conferences”, as there are no keynote speakers, no lectures and no formal teaching. Rather, they are intensive residential learning events held worldwide, lasting from four days to two weeks. They are called group relations conferences, and not workshops or programs, in keeping with the history, rich tradition and design of these unique learning events.
The focus is on learning for leadership, the forms authority can take, and the management of yourself in various roles and situations. It is about developing your capacity to think, using your emotional resources and acting in immediate and practical ways in interpersonal, group and organisational contexts.
The typical six-day residential conference is designed to maximise participants’ involvement – emotional, intellectual and behavioral. It has four main group based events, as well as review and application processes, to allow participants to apply their learning back home.
The main conference events allow participants to work within small and large-group dynamics, as well as to see what emerges when groups need to work with other groups and in an organisation as a whole.
What emerges is what people actually do as they struggle to make sense of the proceedings, find meaningful roles and take up their own authority and leadership within the conference itself and its dynamics as they unfold. It encourages people to reflect on their participation and to experiment with new behavior and insights. Members of staff are always on hand to offer consultancy.
The conference as a whole is designed as a temporary learning organisation that can be studied experientially as it forms, evolves and comes to an end. It attempts to recreate the dynamics that people working in any modern organisation typically experience.
Modern work involves membership of and collaboration with many groups of different sizes and levels of authority, as well as interaction with organisations as wholes. Dynamics in small groups differ greatly from those in large ones, and they change again when groups have to work together in an organisation. Finding your authority and capacity in the maze of roles and group memberships – and discovering the need for collaboration – can be daunting, but it is the task of each individual. It is these kinds of real learning that the conferences attempt to foster.
Possible learning outcomes
Typical outcomes include:
- A more developed awareness of the dynamics of taking up leadership.
- Managing yourself better in multiple roles.
- Understanding and working towards overcoming resistance to change in yourself and in others.
- Understanding the complex dynamics of organisational politics and inter-group dynamics.
- Learning to use your emotional resources as well as rational processes for better understanding.
- Finding a greater capacity for tolerating uncertainty and unpredictability in producing better actions.
- Understanding better the dynamics of small and large groups, and your contribution to those dynamics.
- A greater ability to work with the hidden processes of group and organisational behavior.
How not to
How not to have quality control
The Consumers’ Choice prize goes to Aerosol Products, a New Zealand aerosol can manufacturer that recalled all stocks of hair spray it sold to supermarkets after a woman in the North Island city of Tauranga bought one that contained oven cleaner, according to a report in the local paper, the Bay of Plenty Times. Company managing director Ivan Paul told the paper that, at worst, only 16 wrongly filled cans could have come from the factory. And only one with oven cleaner – which contains sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda – had been reported. Anyway, Paul said, the woman had not been injured.
How not to fund a mortgage
The award for the weirdest fundraising exercise goes to Paresh Trivedi, 45, of the western Indian state of Gujarat, who mortgaged his wife and son to a money lender for a loan of 50,000 rupees ($1700). The Indian Express newspaper reported that the agreement was revealed when Trivedi complained to the police that the money lender was harassing him after getting his signature on a blank sheet of paper. The money lender was arrested and later released on bail.
The Indian Express said that no law permitted the mortgaging of people, however the document – dated December 19, 2001 – was attested by magistrate Dhanjibhai Parmar. The magistrate insisted he had done nothing wrong. “I have not committed any offence. Two parties agreed to the terms and signed the document in my presence. Hence, I put my seal and signature on it,” Parmar told the paper.
How not to cover your tracks
Worst business planning prize goes to the two men accused of robbing a service station near Lodz, in central Poland. The armed robbers took 4000 zloty ($1755) and made their getaway, first in a car and then by foot to their hideout. Trouble is they did so across fresh snow, so police had no difficulty tracing them. Both now face up to 15 years in prison.
How not to develop an invention
In the category of bad business decisions, this month’s prize goes to sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. In 1945 he invented the communications satellite and detailed its specifications in Wireless World. Satellite owner Comsat was not completely ungenerous; it gave him 10 shares. Total dividend income was 17 cents.
How not to respond to satire
The award for painstaking reading goes to Wendy Maldonado, a New York management consultant who has whipped up a storm of protest and calls for a consumer boycott over advice that Edna Everage gave in the popular magazine Vanity Fair.
Mrs Everage, the superstar character created by satirist Barry Humphries, answered a fictional letter from a Palm Beach reader pondering which second language to learn.
Humphries wrote “Forget Spanish. There’s nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of Man of La Mancha will take care of that. There was a poet named Garcia Lorca; but I’d leave him on the intellectual backburner if I were you. As for everyone’s speaking it, what twaddle! Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower? Study French or German, where there are at least a few books worth reading; or, if you’re American, try English.”
Maldonado sent an e-mail to friends asking them to protest, and the response was overwhelming. “I’ve gotten e-mails from New Jersey to Argentina, China and Hawaii. I’m now getting stuff every two seconds,” she said. For their part, Vanity Fair’s representatives issued a statement regretting that comments from a fictional character had created offense. Humphries, the magazine added, was an “equal opportunity distributor of insults”.