Conference director, Olya Khaleelee, shares her experience of the Institute’s new foray into leadership skills.

At a time of such intense change, leadership skills have never been so important. On a global level, events such as 9/11 and the war in Iraq have focused minds on the necessity for effective political leadership.

Marking a new venture for the Tavistock Institute, the theme for this conference arose from the idea that there was scope for expanding group relations activity. And it echoed the current trend for shorter events that might include the corporate sector.  

The uncertainties created by the threat and realities of terrorism have made much greater demands on our leaders to contain anxieties in our societies. 

Perhaps this is why the kind of leadership exercised today at a societal level has become more authoritarian and in the USA and the UK, has a decidedly evangelical flavour.

Who can say whether this is a response to the fundamentalism represented by Al Qaeda? But it does have implications for how far leaders actually ‘lead’ their followers and how far they impose their will upon them. 

Certainly, in the UK, the demonstration of almost a million people against the war on Iraq, had no effect on the decisions taken by our own leader. 

How does a leader ‘lead’?
World events may be moving us away from the traditional notion of leadership, whereby you exercise a vision, inspire your followers and take them with you. 

The global context has had a marked effect on leaders in organisations, increasing their uncertainty and making their capacity to hold to a long-term strategy more tenuous. 

This, in turn, puts a strain on leaders’ capacity to contain uncertainty and the anxiety inherent in it. Short-term gain and the maximisation of profits seem to be more prevalent -  perhaps as a way of trying to shore up a sense of confidence that is unrealistic.

As a result, corporate corruption hits the news more frequently. Maintaining integrity while exercising effective leadership and responsible followership is much more difficult.

At times, there is a fine line which would be easy to cross. 

Are the traits associated with traditional leadership, such as toughness, determination, intelligence and vision, no longer enough?  Softer qualities are needed – self-awareness, empathy and social skills, perhaps.
The need for a high level of emotional intelligence as well as intellectual capacity, has never been greater.

This conference aimed to integrate and enhance this capacity, apart from augmenting the understanding of unconscious processes in organisations.

The gathering took place during the horrific siege of a school at Beslan, Ossetia, in which hundreds of children and their teachers were killed and injured.

It was interesting that despite every participant being keenly aware of outside events and deeply upset by them, little of this was mentioned during the conference, which was spoken of as a ‘sanctuary’. 

The outside world was perceived as a place where the individual felt helpless and impotent in the face of extreme cruelty and overwhelming violence. ‘Cultivating one’s own garden’ was seen as the best the individual might achieve.

Who attended
The participants comprised 11 women and 7 men from several different countries and a variety of sectors and roles:  chief executives, consultants and middle managers from the corporate, health and academic sectors. 

All held leadership roles, many of them struggling with transitions both personal and professional.  Several came in a state of some distress, feeling overwhelmed by the demands and projections placed upon them.

Conference design
The primary task of the conference was to study the exercise of leadership and followership through the interpersonal and intergroup relations that develop within the conference as an organisation. Events within the conference had their own subtasks.

The design of the conference brought together a mixture of experiential and structured events to help participants explore their leadership roles within different settings. 

Elements incorporated were: 

  • A Large Study Group
  • Organisational Role Consultations
  • An Organisation Event that looked at the total conference as an organisation. 

Each day ended with a Review Group or Application Group.  This design seemed to work well for the participants.

The seven international staff who worked on this conference had been selected for their specialist expertise in being able to work effectively with participants with this design. This was achieved. 

Conference dynamics
Competition was high both among participants and staff. 

For participants, it was to do with who was to come out top and how quickly. 

For staff, the dynamic was complex and problematic because personal and close friendships cut across competitive working relationships. It brought to mind the kind of processes that might be experienced in a family business, or through a merger or takeover.  Covert sibling rivalry was difficult to address, for fear of damaging friendships. 

Leadership for any participant or staff member in this situation was difficult. There was also the question of female leadership, represented by a woman director. 

She was both a source of competition and a role model for many of the female delegates, who were struggling with their need to compete in a male world. Staff nurtured a fantasy of a benevolent, anxiety-free male leader.  

Despite these complexities and difficulties, initial feedback at the closing plenary and subsequent comments indicated that participants had learned a great deal about leadership and followership and had gained enormously from the experience. 

They also formed very close bonds during the conference, especially as a result of their work in the Organisational Role Consultations. 

This conference was an important step in developing a new, distinctive venture for the Tavistock Institute. 

Although numbers were small, all those present appreciated the extensive staff attention to their learning needs. It is likely that participants will form an external network to continue meeting and supporting their learning and leadership skills.

September 2004  

Related: Interview with Mannie Sher