Over the past few years, the learning and development industry has witnessed a number of innovations. One has been the evolution of blended learning, reflecting an increasing trend toward combining e-learning and traditional instructor-led delivery methods. Another interesting concept to emerge is a focused effort to bring together the science and practice of leadership through detailed and embedded observation of leadership as it is practiced. This has given way to what might be considered a new training discipline: leadership anthropology.
The Leadership Anthropologist
To understand how leadership anthropology comes into play, it might be helpful to reflect on the discipline of cultural anthropology. In the book “The Power of Strategy Innovation,” authors Robert Johnston and Douglas Bate explain how Moen used a cultural anthropologist to better understand how water is used in American homes. The anthropologist spent considerable time observing families at home and at play and discovered that Moen had a total misperception of how people use and think about water. Based on these observations, Moen was able to make significant innovations in product design and features.
Reflecting on the Moen story helps focus attention on the possible construct of leadership anthropology as a discipline: Someone would be embedded in the real world to observe and experience the practice of leadership. In truth, those involved in the development and delivery of leadership training have been engaged in leadership anthropology for some time. The science of leadership has grown significantly over the past several years as researchers have engaged in both qualitative and quantitative studies on topics such as choices and tradeoffs of high-achieving women, connected leadership and leading across differences such as ethnicity, religion, gender and culture. These research efforts have produced invaluable developmental tools, such as 360-degree assessments, experiential learning modules and countless books and articles.
However, an occasional criticism regarding leadership studies is that researchers seldom “live” in the worlds they study. While researchers may come in contact with leaders for an occasional survey or isolated intervention, typically the researcher retreats to seclusion of the inner sanctum to formulate conclusions and opinions. Seldom do leadership researchers actually live in the environments they study for extended periods. It would seem that the potential to marry the science and practice of leadership could be greatly enhanced by applying some of the basic constructs of participant observation found in anthropology.
From Observation to Innovation
The product of leadership development—the content that is taught—has traditionally been grounded in the science and research of what leaders should know and understand. For example, research on global leadership has highlighted content around understanding cultural differences. Likewise, the process of leadership development has focused on applying content with sensitivity toward how people learn (e.g., active or passive learning). So while both the product and process of leadership development have been influenced by actual leader input and feedback, observations gained from an embedded leadership anthropologist can bring valuable insight into practical, real-world applications.
There are three key points that leadership anthropologists might consider as they look to apply their leadership observations in content and delivery innovations:
- As the rate of content innovation decreases, the rate of delivery innovation should increase. Therefore, the leadership anthropologist should focus observations on the relevance of the content being taught, as well as the effectiveness of the delivery method being used.
- Long-term productivity gains will be realized as sequences of content and delivery innovations. The leadership anthropologist should be mindful of past and current innovations as a point of departure—a place from which new product and process innovations will drive.
- As content matures, the number and impact of delivery innovations will decrease. The leadership anthropologist needs to discern when content has outlived its usefulness, regardless of any further delivery innovations.
The Leadership Anthropologist at Work
Participant observation is a key research method within the field of anthropology. John Monaghan and Peter Just define it as the “simple idea that in order to understand what people are up to, it is best to observe them by interacting with them intimately and over an extended period of time.” From these kinds of observations, the leadership anthropologist is able to sharpen his focus on the effectiveness of the science and practice of leadership. However, the anthropologist needs to be guarded to ensure he doesn’t succumb to the pitfalls inherent in participant observation:
- Remember that you’re not watching a movie. You’re seeing events in real life and in real time.
- It’s not about you, the observer—it’s about what and who is being observed. If you want to draw attention to yourself, write an autobiography.
- Your objectivity always will be questionable, but that’s not a bad thing. It keeps you honest and focused.
In their Harvard Business Review article on empathic design, Dorothy Leonard and Jeffery Rayport highlight participant observation’s value on product design by pointing out that customers are often limited in their ability to articulate and describe possible innovations because they are “so accustomed to current conditions that they don’t think to ask for a new solution.” Leveraging Leonard and Rayport’s ideas around empathic design through participant observation, the leadership anthropologist is better able to understand critical factors in the development process:
- Triggers of use: Understanding what events or conditions caused a person to seek out leadership development. Was the development self-determined or suggested by a peer, colleague or superior? Did a leader recognize an attribute in someone else that they want to develop?
- Interactions with the environment: After leadership development occurs, what happens upon return to the work environment? Does the workplace support and nurture the training? Or does the environment isolate and attempt to recondition the person to accepted norms?
- Customization: Can effective training be a one-size-fits-all commodity, or should it be tailored to address distinctions of the individual, organization and/or cultural environments?
When Science and Practice Align
There’s a great scene in the movie “Jaws” that brings home the impact leadership anthropology can have on leadership development. As Quint, the boat’s captain (actor Robert Shaw) and researcher Matt Hooper (actor Richard Dreyfuss) sit around swapping stories, each proudly displays the scars he’s received from various dangers of ocean life. In this exchange, there is an immediate connection between the two men. While they come from different worlds—one, an academic ocean scholar, the other, a tough-as-nails fisherman—they understand one another; and there was credibility. How many leadership researchers are able to show their scars from living in the worlds they study?
A tremendous source of content and delivery innovation can be discovered by applying some basic constructs of participant observation found in anthropology to the science and practice of leadership development. But there is one distinction that should not be overlooked between traditional and leadership anthropologists. Cultural anthropologists are guarded and do not influence the communities they observe. For the leadership anthropologist, this influence is the very motivation for the work.
Pete Hammett is director of client and assessment services at The Center for Creative Leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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