This is a rehearsal - March Friday

neckafterthoughtAI and Robotics

Dec 1, 2013 (3 years and 6 months ago)

53 views

This

is

a rehearsal
:
Leadership
l
earning
through supported
immersion
in a permanently provisional world.


Dr Graham Abbey, Visiting Professor in the Practice of Leadership and
Organizational Development, Cass Business School


Professor David Sims,
Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Cass
Business School


Cass Business School

106 Bunhill Row

London EC1Y 8TZ


graham.abbey.1@city.ac.uk

d.sims@city.ac.u
k


Knowledge and Learning Track

BAM Conference 2012

Cardiff


Word Count:
6,998



2

This

is

a rehearsal
:
Leadership
l
earning through supported
immersion in a permanently provisional world.



Summary


We argue that the complexity of today’s world requires our leaders to create
environments in which we can all learn, through, what we term,
supported immersion
.
To create
this

context, leaders too must join their followers ‘in the pool’ of
uncertainty
act
ing

as role models, promoting experimental sensemaking through serial
conversations, to encourage the permanent rehearsal of understandings. In developing
these provisional ideas, we have analysed the learning practice of seventeen MBA
students immersed i
n the complex world of South Africa. From their idiosyncratic
accounts we contend that operating in our permanently provisional world requires
learning not best served by traditional educational practice. We suggest through
process of constant rehearsal,

in our minds and our conversations, we can support
each other through the anxiety provoking space of complex organisational change,
never fully making sense, but steadily progressing.




3

Introduction; learning as provisional sensemaking


When we
have
ma
d
e

sense of a situation, this implies a form of closure. Sense is
made when we have been able to fit a new experience, story or piece of data into one
of our existing frameworks or plots (Weick, 1995), or when we are able to develop a
new framework or plot
which can embrace it. We have
then settled
the meaning
for

this new information, in relation to our existing understanding of the world. It makes
sense, and can be expected to go on doing so. Sense
sounds
static. What happens if
we are unable to find a
clear way of making sense of

some new event, or as soon as
sense

has begun to settle, something else comes along to dislodge it, to challenge our
initial attribution? What if it begins to feel as if there is just “one damn thing after
another” (Masefield,

1926), either making the cognitive challenge to making static
sense too great, or leaving us with the feeling that any sense made is not going to
honour our experience of a churning situation?


Rather than expecting that learning will take us smoothly fro
m one
secure sense
to
another, perhaps
our
complex world
, with its ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ (James,
1890
:
488
)

requires us to be more circumspect


to live with the ambiguity of partial
thoughts or wrestle with concepts that refuse to lie down with ou
r prior experience.
Our individual learning may be compared to the progress of knowledge through the
“cumulation of selectively retained tentatives” (Campbell & Stanley, 196
3
: 4). But are
we ever able to be
constant and
consistent in our sense, or is our s
ense always
provisional

and slightly ragged
? Do we ever arrive, or can we only travel? Was Ralph
Waldo Emerson right, that
a

foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of
little minds
,
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines”
?

Do we ever get to
produce
our ‘best’ understanding, or do we remain in constant rehearsal, always seeking to
shift or improve the delivery of our understanding
?

Each time we act we may engage
afresh with both our understanding and environment, both doing and learning
simul
taneously. In this rehearsal, life and learning combine and the distinctions
between theory and practice dissolve, as sensemaking and action become inextricable.


Leadership is also a rehearsal in this way, in that ‘answers’ do not exist to be found,
and

the way ahead needs to be constructed with others. A leader’s role becomes the
modelling of how to be oneself, in flow, engaged in conversation, sharing the
challenge of forming temporary hypotheses that last only as long as they are useful,
reflecting J
ohansen’s advice (2009) to ‘fail early, fail often and fail cheaply’.
Entering into this state of permanent rehearsal may require letting go of some of the
‘normal’ habits of organisational working, and the leader may need to create some
disorientation, s
omething that leaves people feeling not fully in control yet supported,
a state that our research suggests may characterise learning of this type, which we
term ‘supported immersion’. This state of being ill
-
at
-
ease becomes a driver of trying
new ideas.


In this paper we shall t
reat
this leadership
learning as a potentially endless series of
‘rehearsals’
, without

the requirement to ‘get it right’, as there will always be another
opportunity. It is a
learning
frame that encourages ‘having a go’
,
seeking f
eedback
from others
in order to make new provisional sense, impling an engagement with the
world, being alive and present (Senge et al., 2004).

However,
this
remains a slightly
unsettling notion, and somewhat alien to our daily organisational discourse, w
here we
feel pressure to speak as if we knew
where we were
. Even more, it is utterly different

4

from the anti
-
dynamic world view which expects us to specify ‘learning outcomes’
, or
‘learning transfer’
.
What this supported immersion

is
about
is
using ‘what y
ou think
you know’ to move into ‘what you think you don’t know’.
We will explore, in
particular, the role of

conversation, which provides an opportunity to test out
emerging ideas, especially where the relationship is supportive, and offers the
possibilit
y of co
-
creating understanding



which is at the heart of leadership and
learning.


The literature:
leadership,
learning and selectively retained
tentative
s



Reflexive note
:
I enter th
is

literature

review with trepidation
. It is a process of
sensemaking
that has all the discomfort of the learning as a ‘rehearsal’ described in
the introduction
. I find myself drawn into one interesting cul
-
de
-
sac after another,
wondering which will turn out to be relevant. On the one hand trusting that this
exploration wi
ll bring insight and innovation, yet simultaneously wondering if I am
wasting my precious time, and everyone will laugh at my
necessarily selective
choice
s
.


The increasing uncertainty of organisational life has been a backdrop to many
academic arguments i
n organisational studies, in spite of which “within much of the
managerial literature there is a tendency towards a rejection of complexity and
towards the establishment of singular conceptions of reality within a unified macro
-
level structure” (Cairns & B
eech, 2003: 178). The Leadership
, Learning

and
Organisational Change literatures have arguably
all

suffered a lack of requisite variety
(Conant & Ashby, 1970) given the messy (Berg, 1979) and inconsistent
(Sköldberg,
1994) nature of organisational life, l
eaving them missing a sufficiently complex
approach to analyse organisational processes (Colville et al., 1999: 133
-
134).
Seeking
a definition of leadership illustrates this challenge.

Bennis (1959: 259)
observ
ed

that
“the concept of leadership eludes us
or turns up in another form to taunt us again with
its slipperiness and complexity”.
M
ost definitions of leadership
do
share the idea that
“intentional influence is exerted over other people” (Yukl, 2010: 21) towards some
form of predetermined organisation
al objective, or, more bluntly, the leadership role
is to “make sure that people know exactly what to do and when to do it” (Wheatley,
1999: 131). Th
e
s
e

presuppose
, however,

that leaders know what to do, and allow
little room for the “concepts of emergenc
e and self
-
organization” (Plowman &
Duchon, 2008: 136), in which leaders are not in control (Marion & Uhl
-
Bien, 2001).
In many situations
today
leaders are simply “too isolated from critical environments
… to be able to construct appropriate visions” (Lor
d, 2008: 157), meaning these ‘top
-
down’ conceptions of leadership seem ill suited to the dynamics of current
organisational life.


Concerns with the emergent, bottom
-
up quality (Holland, 1995; Marion, 1999;
Marion & Uhl
-
Bien, 2001) of the way in which org
anizations align with their external
environments, and
manage

employees (Lord, 2008: 157), has led to the “increasing
recognition of the role of interdependencies that form the core of leading”
(
Antonacopoulou & Bento, 2010: 73). This includes leadership
as shared (Bradford
& Cohen, 1998) or distributed (Barry, 1991),
a focus

that strives to develop
followers who are effective self
-
leaders


(Houghton et al, 2003: 23
-
4)
.

M
ore critical

5

definitions of leaderships
include:

“imagining, willing and driving,
and thereby
making something happen which was not going to happen otherwise” (Fineman,
Gabriel and Sims, 2010
:
99
).
I
nterdependencies require meaning to be jointly created
by leaders and followers,
as
leaders “seek to construct a narrative that will enabl
e
organization actors themselves to make sense of, and cope with complexity and
ambiguity” (Cairns & Beech, 2003: 179). Organizational leaders cannot control
individual
sensemaking
, but “they can seek to have a major influence on the
interpretations that a
re arrived at by presenting their own construction of events”
(Dunford & Jones, 2000: 1208)
, or
‘sensegiving’ (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991)
.

W
hile
important in the interpretation of events (Dunford & Jones, 2000: 1222),
leaders’

insight is not exclusive, as

“management’s narrative is one of multiple claims that can
be made about an organization”
(Chreim,
2005: 573)
.


The combination of uncertain outcomes, critical interdependencies and the need to
make and give sense means that “whatever else leaders do, the
ir primary role is to
keep learning, and also facilitate the learning of those around them” (
Antonacopoulou
& Bento, 2010: 73). However, many of the classic learning theories

(
Noe, 2010: 141
-
149
)
assume what needs to be learnt is known.
With a

focus on le
adership as practice
,

learning leadership
requires


reflexive critique



the capacity to
re
hearse,
re
cognise,
re
view and
re
new ways of thinking and action on the road to becoming a leader”
(Antonacopoulou & Bento, 2010: 72). Leadership and learning have b
oth been
viewed as practice (
Knights & Wilmott, 1992;
Gherardi, 2000;
Alvesson &
Sveningsson, 2003;

Carroll et al, 2008)
,

and reinforce the interdependencies present in
both, as

“p
ractice


is embedded within the situation in which it takes place” (Raelin,

2011: 197). Both disciplines have followed on from the success of strategy
-
as
-
practice (Jarzabkowski, 2005)
as part of

the ‘practice turn’ (Schatzki et al., 2001) in
the social sciences.

In leadership this has been in response to the concern that

studies that reduce leader
ship and its consequences to inter
-
related sets of variables
are clearly very limited in their capacity to grasp the temporally rich experience of
what it means to be a leader


(Denis et al, 2010: 72). What is required instead is

an
approach that seeks to understand

the “nitty
-
gritty details”

(Chia, 2004: 29) of routine
and practice
, where
the challenge
is one of exploring “non
-
deliberate practical
coping”

instead of “planned, intentional action”

(Chia & Holt, 2006: 643)
.



In
fo
cusing

on leadership learning, we have followed Carroll et al (2008: 372), who in
turn used six questions proposed by
Whittington (2003: 117) to consider for the
strategy
-
as
-
practice agenda.
While Carroll et al substituted ‘leadership’ for
‘strategizing’,
we have added
learning

to the otherwise verbatim questions

in
directing our thinking
:

Where and how is the work of
leadership

learning

actually
done; who does this
leadership

learning

work; what are the common tools and
techniques of
leadership

learning
; how is the work of
leadership

learning

organized,
communicated and consumed?

In this way we seek to consider leadership learning as
a set of activities suited to exploring the unknown, rather than
as
a product for
transferring what is known.
In seeking

to focus on “
situated activity

rather than
abstract processes”

(Whittington, 2003: 118)
,
we need to

work with what is
‘unspoken’, ‘inarticulate’ and ‘oftentimes unconscious’ (Chia & MacKay, 2007: 237)
,
as much of practice is

internalized, improvised a
nd
unselfconscious”

(Carroll et al,
2008: 374). As Gherardi (2000: 214) asserts:


t
hinking of learning through
participation in a practice enables us to focus on the fact that, in everyday practices,
learning takes place in the flow of experience, with or wi
thout our awareness of it

.

6

This provides our focus as we analyse the practice of learning, leadership and
leadership learning in South Africa.


The context;

learning leadership in complex situations


Our data comes from an MBA elective in which we lead students into thinking about
change in complex situations by taking them to South Africa for a week.
W
e take
them into townships, museums and tourist venues, but mostly into businesses which
range from m
ultinationals to craft workshops. South Africa is the venue because it is
both one of the world’s most complex situations, and a place where people are willing
to talk relatively openly about the changes they
, and their leaders,

have been through.
South Af
rica is particularly interesting
because of the central role of business in many
successful changes
.


W
e decided not to include a deliberately didactic component in this module
,

but to

immerse them in
a busy series of visits to places where change leaders
hip or its
effects were clearly visible, and set up the conditions for a conversation
s

for our
students to make their own sense of it, and learn whatever they believed would be
helpful to them. These conversations would be with the representatives of the
o
rganizations they visited, with each other, and with us as accompanying academic
staff.


We have run this module four times

in successive years
; data for this paper are taken
from the most recent group. The students were from several different cohorts of
MBA
students within our business school, average age being early 30s with a corresponding
number of years of postgraduate experience behind them. They were also a very
international group, 42 people from 17 nationalities. None of them knew more than a
mino
rity of the other participants before the module.
N
umbers of students attending
are

restricted
to a coach load,

to maximise interaction between them
,

and between us
and them.


At the beginning, we describe the module to the students as a week
-
long
conversation.
We ask them to take care of the impression they give of our school to those who
observe us or host us, and we tell them the assignment task



a 1500
-
word essay
.
1

The
mo
st

significant staff role is to model and catalyse the developing discussi
on of
leadership of change during the week, and especially at the beginning, where students
may be more accustomed to getting to know each other through less demanding topics
of conversation.


The students know that this is what they have signed up for
, a
s the course objectives
are published in advance
. They are adults. They can be presumed to have a more



1


What have you learned about

the leadership of change in a complex situation
through the module in South Africa? In answering this question, show how the
specific events, visits and lectures in the module have informed your learning, and
show how you expect your learning through the
module to inform your future
engagement in leading change within your own organization.




7

detailed knowledge than we could possibly have both of their current skills and needs,
and of their
interest in future involvement
in the leadership of c
hange. We offer them
a few frameworks from the literature, quite often with warnings

to approach them
critically

attached. Thereafter
,

we leave them to take responsibility for hearing what is
being said in the companies we visit, for making sense of it, an
d for building that
sense into something that they can write about in the assignment. None of the usual
MBA teaching methods are used. There are no academic lectures, no buzz groups
with flip charts, no staff summaries, no reminders of models or frameworks
. There is
simply conversation, discussion, unsupervised and voluntary, as the students make
sense of the massive complexity of change in South Africa.


The study; collaborative exploration with our participants


The first author conducted

a semi
-
structur
ed set of interviews
, using

questions based
on our initial interests, most notably the importance of conversation in leadership and
learning,

and
shaped by the amended Leadership Learning questions
(
after

Carroll,
2008)
. Later interviews were influenced b
y the content of their predecessors, with
emerging ideas or themes being confirmed or elaborated.
T
here was a level of
intimacy and trust already present between the interviewer and the majority of the
interviewees, given the shared experience of the elec
tive
, leading to apparent high
disclosure
. The interviews had a feel of a continuation of the conversations that had
been central to the elective.


O
ur role as academics on the study tour was to model a leadership style that sought to
support independenc
e in the students


learning. We did not seek to suggest that we
were better placed to know ‘the answers’ to the challenges being presented, more that
we were also participants in making sense of our shared experiences. While
hesitating to describe this a
s an ‘equal’ relationship, there was not the ‘normal
distance’ between student and professor. This tone of co
-
collaboration was carried
through to the interviews, including the deliberate involvement of the interviewer in
the content of the discussion, le
ading to the co
-
creation of ideas and sharing of
experiences. It is important to note that the interviews took place in the week
following the return of the marked assessments to the students. Therefore, there was
no (or at least a reduced) political mot
ive, as students were unable to influence their
assignment mark.


During the interview conversations, we
encouraged

the students to describe activities
and processes that had facilitated sensemaking and learning, as well as describing the
shifts in their
understandings of leading complex change.


The students were given the
opportunity to shape the direction of the conversation.

We were seeking to avoid
abstractions, or reconstructions of past events, but recognised the unavoidable impact
of a retrospecti
ve account and the temptations for interviewe
e
s to tidy up their
narratives. This led us to use follow up questions that sought greater specificity or
granularity of events, as we looked to explore the interviewe
e
s practice as a learner.


The method; provisional frameworks for provisional ideas



8

Our methodology is a combination of participant observation and analysis of semi
-
structured interviews. The two authors were the academic staff on the module in
question, supervising the arrangemen
t of the visits, accompanying the students
throughout, facilitating and maintaining their learning, and carrying responsibility for
their assessment.
A

well
-
qualified consultant took responsibility for
making
all the
contacts and the practical arrangements
. We the average amount of contact
was
not
less than 14 hours per day per author over 6 days, giving at least 108 hours of
participant observation of the learning within the group. That forms a background for
the main data that we shall employ in this pape
r, which come from semi
-
structured
interviews, averaging 50 minutes in length, with 17
volunteers
of the 42 students who
took part in this module.
With an
international MBA group, not all volunteers
could

be interviewed in London, so 3 of those interviews
were conducted by telephone
,
without a detectable loss in quality
.


The interviews were all recorded and transcribed.
We

both made a full analysis of
each of the interviews to see what we learned from using two different traditions of
analysis. The first
author used NVivo to organize and analyse the data, deriving
constructs from the data according to principles of grounded analysis. The second
author was seeking to do the same by a different process. He listened to the audio
recording of each interview in

order to gain any nuances that escaped the transcript;
we felt the first author did not need to do this as he had conducted the interviews. At
the same time the second author highlighted those parts of the transcript that he
considered most central to und
erstanding the views of the interviewee. Then he took a
second pass through the data, categorising the comments highlighted in the first pass
on grounded theory principles. He kept a record of the categories used by different
participants in an Excel sprea
dsheet, so that where categories could be seen as
synonyms for each other duplication was minimised.


At this stage the two authors compared their analys
e
s to see if either the two different
coding methods
,

or the two different coders
,

had led to radically different results in
the analysis. We found that we had come to recogni
s
ably similar categories, but with
some enrichment of perspective from the two different methods.
2


Next we

produce
d

a
map of the categories that had emerged for e
ach of us, and then to see to what extent
it might be possible to merge our maps. This activity was as valuable for the
conversations that it caused as it was for the resulting merged maps. As we questioned
each other about how we had derived our categorie
s and what we thought they meant,
we undertook a significant revision of them, learning more about what they could tell
us and about how they related to the data and the accounts of the students as the
discussion took place. This dialogue between the resea
rchers became an important
part of our dialogue with the data.

Finally, we developed some super
-
categories from
our emerging categories in order to give our analysis more shape and coherence. The
sub
-
headings under which we describe some of the data, belo
w, are examples of those
super
-
categories.




2

We would not claim that the different methods gave us some kind of superior
‘triangulated’ view of our data; indeed we would regard the notion of triangulation as
an inappropriate metaphor to bring into such research, implying as it does the
objectivity achieved by land surveyors when looking at a mountain from two different
angles. Our claim for the resulting knowledge would be closer to asking two different
poets
to reflect on a mountain, and then reading their accounts together.


9


Reflexive note: We were conscious throughout our discussions of living supported
immersion, and how this methodology means that we are not making a claim to have
discovered objective truths. Rather, we are claim
ing that we have developed a bigger
picture from the pictures that the students have of the kind of learning that they have
undergone. We make no apologies for the character of this claim; we believe that
what we have to offer as a result of our research r
epresents a ‘selectively retained
tentative’, and that it should be read as a claim to increased understanding of the
topic rather than as an objective truth claim.

The findings; provisional emerging categories

Emerging categories

In this section we shal
l discuss some of the most important categories to emerge from
our data, according to super
-
categories
,

which give good explanatory power and
structure.


The control of learning


Our participants believed that they were helped
learning success
both by the

extent to
which they were in control
,

and the extent to which they were out of control
,

of
learning.


Pull versus push learning

suggested that they felt they learned better when the
learning agenda was theirs, and they selected (‘pull’) what they wanted t
o learn, rather
than follow someone else’s syllabus (‘push’). One participant considered that the
whole MBA should be redesigned on this principle:



So this is a pull design not a push design and the basic experience is not
about finance or marketing but
it’s about organising yourself in a complex
situation so this kind of different experience



Others described this as
Responsibility for learning
, a concept which was important to
almost all the interviewees, saying that they worked harder because they wer
e left
with the responsibility for making sure that they learned from the situation, and
determining what that learning should be. Some described this as
Learning alongside
the professors
, or
Facilitated learning
.

However, this may make it sound cosier than it felt for them. There was also a sense
that they were
Learning through disorientation
, that they were
Out of the comfort
zone
. They felt safe to go to places and to see things which would usually make them
very

uncomfortable and unsure, to be
Lost in the breadth of change
. None of these
experiences, we would suggest, are unfamiliar to students while learning, but the
difference seems to have been that they were encouraged to
Stay open
, and not to
close their thi
nking off too quickly by the use of academic models (several of them
described themselves, towards the end of their MBA programme, as being
Sick of
models)
. Learning was not just cognitively additive, but was to do with
Allowing
yourself to be changed
.


10


I

like that sense of people talking about things, admitting to their own
softening that’s all a kind of admitting to a frailty
. People put up barriers to
things, and talking about it they realise they have changed



Learning in flow


Associated with these last ideas about allowing yourself to be changed was the idea of
Willingness to learn
, and
the sense

that you would be more likely to learn from
situations if you were in a state of
Being present
, or
Being alive and engaged
.



I thin
k (I had) the sense
of feeling absolutely alive and engaged, not just with
the people around me on the trip but suddenly all these feelings out there I can
grab, people I can talk to, the connections I can make
.



There was a sense that this sort of learni
ng only happened when you were
At ease
with yourself
, meaning that the persona you presented within the module was one that
you really liked in yourself. Many of these concepts seemed to centre on the notion of
flow. They also reflected back interesting
ly

on the notion of control discussed in the
previous section, the delicate balance of feeling on the edge of control
,

which
characterises the sense of flow (
Csikszentmihalyi, 2002

), whereby you feel that you
can achieve what you are trying to do, so you are

confident, but you also feel that you
are and that you need to be fully awake and alert:



The structured deregulation, the un
-
regulation. The concept of flow
,
-

just go
for it and make your own experience and don’t make the professor’s
experience, make
your own experience

.


Learning in relationship


Part of our learning design for this module is that experienced, mature MBA students
should be able to be effective learning enablers for each other, and not rely on this
role being played only by the acade
mic staff, and this was born out by some of the
things they said about the importance (even when, occasionally, it was negative) of
others to their learning.


Almost all our participants talked about the
Learning community

as part of their
discussion of ho
w and what they learned. This was partly to do with the fact that most
of them were coming to the end of their programme:



It was
having the experience with people you’d known for two years
,

,
having a quite strong bond with people which was quite good,
some of the
stuff would be quite hard to talk to with people I didn’t know quite so well

.


So it was important to have people you knew quite well, and could process ideas as
they came up, as well as others who you did not know but with whom you shared a
c
ontext and with whom you could
Find common ground
:



11


some people you knew and everyone knew what this MBA transformation
was about (some more than others maybe), there was a similar road...so it was
easier to have ad hoc conversations in depth with people
I had never met
because there was a joint shared background

.


This is also expressed as
Sensemaking together
:



Current constant triangulation, there is some reflection but there’s a lot of
sense making in talking with other people and discussing with the
m, which is
part of the process of being on the bus and talking to the cohort but actually
taking it external and telling other people
”.


We had wondered whether the learning model played better for some people than for
others. For example, one person who described themselves as being introverted
regarded it as being important to find
Time to reflect alone
, and another person said:



we had
been talking throughout the week but it was almost scraping the
surface type conversations. You only really got the full scope after (for me)
after I thought about it

.


Preceding factors influencing learning


As well as the similarities for students’ lear
ning, described in the preceding sections,
we were struck by the diversity of the experiences described. Many of the different
learning routes taken throughout the week and beyond, began with what the learners
‘brought with them’. There were preceding fa
ctors that influenced the learning path
and the nature of the experience.


The reason for having chosen the elective

or individual
p
urpose

was important. This
included specific learning objectives:



being sat in


a senior leadership role with a group
that is underperforming,
seen to be entrenched and stuck in their way
,

so I wanted to try and take that
complication and use my experience in South Africa in more creative ways to
deal with that set of issues


While for others, this meant the recognition t
hat new learning was taking place in the
context of prior understandings:



When you draw out themes from things it’s always a combination of the
themes you were interested in before you arrived, and then what you’re
hearing. And as you go through the week

it’s a challenge to keep your mind
open to new themes. You can grab hold of a few on the first day and then
suddenly you don’t see the others.


The
b
ack
-
story

of students was cri
tical, for instance in their opinions of South Africa:



I was brought up
thinking South Africa was a bad place, refusing to let go of
apartheid and ‘how could they?’ sort of thing. And then I went there and
realised it isn’t that simple and that some people just got caught up in it.



12


Perhaps the most
striking
preceding factor
was the differing
p
ersonal style
s

influencing how sensemaking was approached. For some it was about using their
experience

to understand quickly what was going on:


“I
am used to being dropped into countries where I can’t even speak the
language and I had

to make two films in seven days with a translator
,

and
that’s sort of my background to make quick sense of something.


This was in contrast with others who sought to suspend their sensemaking:



I let things drip i
n
...

I don’t attack it straight away to
make sense of
everything, and then more stuff comes in over the week I start thinking about
it and at the end of it I form some kind of vi
ews.”

This
open
-
mindedness

was about background for some students:



I lived in five

different countries growing up



We are all human; there are
no stereotypes, preconceived notions. When I go somewhere new I try to erase
everything I learned about the place and just immerse myself.



Contextual factors influencing learning


The learning was also influenced by the contex
t in which it was taking place. While
the learning objectives were
only
indirectly about
South Africa
, the country had a
particular influence on many of the students:



because you are going to a developing country it strips away quite a lot of the
more t
rivial things that we deal with in the West, and I’ve always found that it
always takes you back to a more essential form of reality, where you are really
dealing
with the essence of being human”

Learning was facilitated by the people we were talking to:


there is something that is quite special about talking to South Africans, as a
culture they are remarkable open and communicative in a very reflective,
analytical and e
motional way that is quite rare”

South Africa also set a
cultural context
, encouraging
students to look at their own
situations in a similar way:



They are very involved, it’s like, ‘okay that happened and it was bad but we
are moving on now’, and there is something within their character that wants
to move forward without too much worrying

around, which enables them to
reflect on their business in a very pragmatic way

.

The environment also had some more
destabilising effect

on some students, creating a
period of s
hock
:



A lot of

holy fuck

. Sitting there
,

thinking
,


shit, I don’t know
how to deal
with this. This is so beyond what my brain is used to be dealing with

, that

13

sort of freeze. I don’t know how to go with this, normally my thinking is quite
practical, logical and that doesn’t fit into any of this.


This brought an
emotional

component to the learning:


I think emotions caught up with thinking so I’m not sure I can divorce the
two

I think some traditionally would say that emotions are irrational and
thinking is rational, but I don’t think it’s as clear cut as that so I think
that any
experience of taking on new information and engaging with that information is
going to release emotional reactions



The combination of preceding and contextual factors lead students to ask themselves
significant questions about their own l
eadersh
ip
, and the
contribution

they were
looking to make:




I think also I came away with a question of whether I have the courage to
really lead on that level, it takes a great conviction in the vision you are
moving towards. There is a strange element that ac
tually you don’t listen to
people, because if your vision is really powerful there are a whole lot of
people who will be telling you its rubbish




Conversations


Conversations provided important sensemaking opportunities for
virtually all
of the
students.

Once again there was a noticeable diversity in the n
ature

of the
conversations, and how students used them to further their understandings.
There
were students who were
instrumental

in their use of conversations:



when I got to what I thought were my t
hings that I wanted to understand
more about, I would seek out other peoples view on that particular topic



This extended beyond the
boundaries

of the group:


having conversations with waitresses or people in the crafts square, and
actually talking to them, getting that
sense of the environment itself”

F
or others the impact was more
general

in nature:


It was useful to know other people w
ere having the same expe
riences”


The role of the
academic staff

in

these conversations was
seen as important
:



I think you

[one of the authors]

facili
tated some of the conversations



going around on the bus and clearly speaking to different people and seeing
who wasn’t sitting next to someone and going and having a conversation with
them


I think the influence that had on the group was very profound.


Being connected to others provid
ed a
helping learning environment
:

“[conversations]
enabled me to feel secure enough to explore things more
deep
ly”
.


14

T
he relationships
built through

the
conversational exchange
,
with people giving of
themselves
, helped students trust each other
, creating a

space in which
they

could
achieve what
they wanted. The conversations had a broader role in learning than
just
gathering more data or making sense of what was going on.

The importance of the
relationship for the nature of the conversation emphasised the

role of repeated
conversations over the week:


with specific individuals you develop a closer relationship because you go
out and get to know them better and the conversations are more detailed



so
if you speak to somebody three or fou
r times different t
hemes emerge”

In contrast,
individual encounters

were influential too:


“one of
the people I didn’t speak to ‘til the last night, was probably one of the
people I had the best conversations with


it was a passionate conversation,
we had different viewpoints and it was fascinating



Students were not just

having discussion
s

about what
they

were seeing and doing
,

but
about who
they

are and what
they ar
e trying to do

in the world. There appeared

to b
e

an

important connection

between

what
the students were seeing and conceptions of
identity
, which was reflected in a complex web of conversations:


there
were



discussions between students

[about]:

fights, love affairs and
this was emotional again and very interesting and another learning experience
because that’s a totally different angle on people on my course and that was a
good experience
because they were getting human”
3

The benefits of convers
ations were not universal:


I wasn’t ready to have a discussion with someone sitting next to me on the
bus or at lunch, I just wanted to spend tim
e with myself and sit and think”

The bus not only provided a location for conversation, but also for
reflection
:


For me it was perfect because I had peace and quiet on the bus, I didn’t have
to speak to anyone else, so it was time I could really assimilate and feel what I
was seeing.



The outcome; from learning as product to learning as playful process


Reflexive note: This was, and remains, as much a learning journey for us as it was for
our students, just as leading change requires leaders to learn as much or more than
their followers to be successful. We joined them in the immersion, and we too were
supported.




3

Identity was also influenced more directly:

I had one extraordinary experience in
South Africa, one person I hadn’t met before who I got to know

out there a little bit,
gave me the most

direct feedback I’ve ever had in my life.




15


We opened this paper with our reflections on the dangers of closure, our implicit
operating

assumption that we need to ‘make sense’ in a way that gives us clarity.
This is present in t
he students’
struggle to make sense of leadership in a complex
world AND in the

challenges
facing the

leaders they were meeting and studying
,
AND in
our own wrestling with our experiences and the

research

data.


Many learning
designs carry an expectation of being able
to wrap things up neatly, to reach a
resolved conclusion, yet s
implifying the complexity
can obscure

meaning, as we
reconstruct and seek to evidence a retrospective argument.


S
upported immersion

is

a
learning strategy
that
invites learners to

swim with a
rmbands


rather than to be too
focused on

arriving at the edge of the pool

.


Similarly with this paper, o
ur intention
has been

to produce a ‘
writer
ly’ text
rather than a ‘readerly’ one
4

.


What does seem clear to us is that we have help
ed

create an environment that
promotes learning and illuminates
critical
tensions
in
leadership.
In South Africa we:

c
reate an environment that disorientates
; p
rovide ‘one damn thing after another’
; b
uild
a community that provides support

through conversati
on
; b
alance feelings of a lack of
personal security with the safety of colleagues; encourag
e

personal risk taking
; m
odel
leadership that models rehearsal
; m
odel rehearsal that models leadership
; and b
enefit
from a national

South African

‘have
-
a
-
go’ culture
.


The resulting conversations have demonstrated a practice of leadership learning that is
intensely personal
,

as individuals rely on their own sense of the world to navigate
otherwise baffling territory.

Creating an
environment that allows such learning
diversity to flourish

becomes a core leadership challenge.


Critical reflexivity is
central to
this
personal
navigat
ion
, knowing not only what is going on inside you as a
learner, but recognising that this also influences the choices you make in interactin
g
with the world, and others in it
-

shaping your conversations, sparking new debates,
closing off particular ‘lines of inquiry’.

The complex
ity

of interactions between
inside and outside
,

mak
es

the

distinction questionable, and
reinforc
es

the notion that
:
“worlds are not given, they are constantly made and remade. This also means that
meaning and knowledge are constructed, and not ‘
found' in things and events

(
C
zarniawska,
2001: 254)
.
Once again, the same can be said for us as researchers
.
W
e are argu
ably
just

exposing the workings of our own minds,
to

prompt you, as
reader, to do the same. Maybe this is all we can ever truly ask of our leaders,
reinforc
ing

the centrality of the notion of authenticity from those we seek to follow.

We have seen th
ese

e
xperience
s

impact
students in a way that goes beyond their
intellectual development
. Many talked of a desire to do something different, to
change their practice, without know
ing

in what way specifically:


I think definitely the module made it more likely
that I will really find the
courage to lead in something to do with making society better





4

“The readerly text achieves closure and positions the reader as a passive consumer
of its meaning … [A writerly text] does not present the reader with pre
-
packaged
meaning, but rather encourages the reader to
participate in the production of that
meaning”

(
Barthes,
1977
: 110
-
111).



16

These comments did not feel like rhetoric, but heart
-
felt intentions, yet at no point was
this part of our ex
plicit
objectives
, although
perhaps

an

unconscious
desire

of ours
.

The impact of the experience spread
,

for many, beyond the boundaries of the elective,
even though there was often a continued lack of clarity or certainty
:


I’m frustrated with the assignment in hindsight and having had this conversation
I
'm even more frustrated with it because it’s almost too divorced from the
experience … you’re trying to distil something that can’t be distilled


And recognition of a never
-
ending quest:

“[I am] p
robably still making sense of it, probably will continue to
make sense of
it, not sure if I will come up w
ith one right answer to it all.”

It is this idea of accepting that there is no final destination that leads us back to the
concept of rehearsal
. It is

a rehearsal for a performance, but one never actually
delivered, yet needs to be believed in for the rehe
a
rsal to be meaningful. This
highlights a possible
paradox;

the learner or leader has to believe in a ‘final’
performance, yet concurrently know it w
ill never come. This may point to a form of
sensemaking, than moves away form the purely rational fitting of information into
existing or emerging storylines, and towards a more emotional or holistic form:


I make sense out of this by accepting what’s goi
ng on and dialling into it and not
hiding and not trying to go away, to be present in the group


I did try to be
rational
.

I didn’t want to start my brain working too much, I really focused on
being connected
,

and being connected with my feeling
.


I
t wou
ld be inappropriate, in our view, to
suggest that

any single learning process is at
play in these situations, and that the combination of preceding and environmental
factors lead to an idiosyncratic form of learning. A form of learning that requires
leade
rs to focus
both on creating the conditions that support risks to be taken, and
embracing their own learning
,

and accompanying anxieties
,

as they head into the
unknown.

A supported immersion.


Conclusion; what have we learned


This paper has been all about studying a form of learning which does not fit the
boxes, and trying to learn from it whether the current hegemonic practices in teaching
methods actually prevent an important kind of learning. It takes the view that we learn
by rehearsing ideas in our minds and in conversation with others. The discovery of
these new ideas and their rehearsal is not the end of the matter, but a step along the
way.
It also suggests that we may learn about complicated situations through
supported

immersion in them.
We
,

and all our students
,

hope that this module was not
the conclusion of
our
learning about the leadership of change in complex situations,
but a stimulus to a path of learning through continuous rehearsal
that
will never finish.
The w
orld will continue to change and there will be further input of stimuli to the
process. The
rehearsals that the students undergo

are not to gain a block of finished
learning, but are the very process of continuous learning. Life
is

a rehearsal
, afterall
.
T
his form of learning, by discussion and mental rehearsal, is a help in preparation for

17

further continuous rehearsal. The outcome is not the achievement of atomistic
learning objectives, but is better rehearsal.


References


Alvesson
, M., and Sveningsson,
S. (2003
) Managers Doing Leadership: The Extra
-
ordinarization of the Mundane,
Human Relations
56(12): 1435

59.


Antonacopoulou, E. and Bento, R. (2010) ‘Learning leadership’ in practice, in J.
Storey (Ed)
Leadership in organizations
, 71
-
92, Routledge


Barry, D. (1991) Managing the boss
-
less team: Lessons in distributed leadership,
Organization Dynamics
, 20: 31
-
47


Barthes, R. (1977) Introduction to the structural analysis of narratives, in R. Barthes
(ed) and S. Heath (trans
), Image
-
music
-
text
, Glasgow,

UK: William Collins (Original
work published in 1966), 79
-
124.


Bennis, W.G (1959) Leadership theory and administrative behavior: the problem of
authority,
Administrative Science Quarterly
, 4, 259
-
260


Berg, P. (1979)
Emotional Structures in Organizations
, Lund, Sweden:
Studentlitteratur.


Bradford, D.L. and Cohen, A.R. (1998)
Power up: Transforming organisations
through shared leadership
, New York: Wiley


Cairns, G. and Beech, N. (2003) Un
-
entwining monological narratives of change
through dramaturgical a
nd narrative analyses,
Culture and Organization
, 9(3), 177
-
193.


Campbell and Stanley (1963)
Experimental and quasi
-
experimental designs for
research.

Reprint from
Handbook of research on teaching
. Boston: Houghton
-
Mifflin.



Carroll, B., Levy, L., and Richmond, D. (2008) Leadership as Practice: Challenging
the Competency Paradigm,
Leadership
4(4): 363

79.


Chia, R. (
2004)
Strategy
-
as
-
practice: Ref
lections on the Research Agenda
,
European
Management Review
,

1
,

29

34.


Chia, R.,

and

Holt, R. (2006) ‘Strategy as Practical Coping: A Heideggerian
Perspective’,
Organization Studies
,

27(5), 635

55


Chreim, S. (2005) The continuity
-
change duality in narrative texts of organizational
identity,
Journal of Management Studies
, 42(3), 567
-
5
93.


Colville, I.D., Waterman, R.H., and Weick, K.E. (1999) Organizing and the search for
excellence: Making sense of the times in theory and practice,
Organization
, 6 (1),
129
-
148.


18


Conant, R.C. and Ashby, R.W. (1970) Every good regulation of a system must be a
good model of that system,
International Journal of Systems Science
, 1(2), 89
-
97


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002).
Flow: the psychology of happiness
. Rider.


Czarniawska, B. (2001) Is it Possible to Be a Constructionist Consultant,
Management
Learning,

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 32(2) 253
-
266.


Denis,

J
-
L.,
Langley
, A.

and Rouleau
, L. (2010)

The practice of leadership in the
messy world of o
rganizati
ons
,

Leadership
,

6,

67
-
89


Dunford, R. and Jones, D. (2000) Narrative in strategic change,
Human Relations
,
53(9): 1207
-
1226.


Emerson, R.W. (1841)
Essays: First Series


Self
-
reliance


Gherardi, S
.

(2000)
Practice
-
Based Theorizing on Learning and Knowing in
Organizations,
Organization,
7(2),

211
-
23


Gioia, D.A. and Chittipeddi, K. (1991) Sensemaking and sensegiving in strategic
change initiation,
Strategic Management Journal
, 12, 433
-
448.


Houghton, J.D., N
eck, C.p. and Manz, C.C. (2003) Self
-
leadership and
superleadership: The heart and art of creating shared leadership in teams, in C.L.
Pearce and J.A. Conger (Eds)
Shared leadership: Reframing the how’s and why’s of
leadership
, Thousand Oaks: Sage


James,
W. (1890)
Principles of psychology
,
New York: Henry Holt


Jarzabkowski, P. (2005)
Strategy as practice: An activity perspective
, London: Sage


Johansen, R. (2009)
Leaders make the future: Ten new leadership skills for an
uncertain world
, San Francisco, CA:

Berrett
-
Koehler


Knights, D., and Willmott, H. (1992) Conceptualizing Leadership Processes: A Study
of Senior Managers in a Financial Services Company, Jour
nal of Management Studies
29: 761

82.


Lord, R.G. (2008) Beyond transactional and transformational leadership: Can leaders
still lead when they don’t know what to do?, in M. Uhl
-
Bein, & R. Marion, (Eds)
Complexity leadership part 1: Conceptual foundations
, 155
-
184, IAP


Marion, R. and Uhl
-
Bien, M. (2001) Leadership in complex organizations,
The
Leadership Quarterly
, 12, 389
-
419


Masefield, J. (1926) ODTAA, Heinemann


Noe, R.A. (2010)
Employee training and development
, (5
th

Edition), McGraw
-
Hill



19

Plowman, D.A. & Duchon, D.

(2008) Dispelling the myths about leadership: From
cybernetics to emergence, in M. Uhl
-
Bein, & R. Marion, (Eds)
Complexity leadership
part 1: Conceptual foundations
, 129
-
154, IAP


Raelin, J. (2011) From leadership
-
as
-
practice to leaderful practice,
Leader
ship
,

7(2) 195

211

Schatzki, T., Knorr
-
Cetina, K., and von Savigny, E. (2001)
The Practice Turn in
Contemporary Theory
. London: Routledge



Senge, P., Scharmer, C.O., Jaworski, J and Flowers, B.S. (2004).

Presence: exploring
profound change in people, org
anizations and society
. Boston MA: Nicholas Brealey.


Sköldberg, K. (1994) Tales of Change: Public Administration Reform and Narrative
Mode,
Organization Science
, 5(2), 219
-
238.


Weick, K.E. (1995)
Sensemaking in organizations
, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


W
hittington, R. (2
003)
The Work of Strategizing and Organiz
ing: For a Practice
Perspective
,
Strategic Organization
,

1(1), 117

25