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A Leading Question

I don’t know whether leadership can be taught, but I’m willing to spend a week in the mountains to find out

Jun 1, 2007

by Heather Zwicker

I’m standing on a wooden disc the size of a medium pizza, 30 feet off the ground. The disc is bolted to a telephone pole, which is swaying alarmingly, perhaps because I’m trembling with fear. What I’m supposed to do next is clear and, as far as I’m concerned, absurd: I’m supposed to leap off this perch to touch a foam noodle hanging 10 feet away, then descend gracefully to the ground with help from my team members, who are gamely holding the ropes attached to my climbing harness.

To call us a “team” suddenly seems like an overstatement: we were complete strangers 24 hours ago. In our short time together we have established, however, that not a single one of us knows the first thing about mountaineering. Dimly, I recall that I should be concentrating on the relationship between risk, trust and reward, but quivering there above the Douglas firs, I’m actually wondering whether I’ll be the first person on this exercise to head back down the telephone pole without jumping.

This challenge, called The Leap of Faith, is the high point of a six-day leadership program at the Banff Centre, both literally and symbolically. The course I’m taking is called “Leadership Challenge: Managing Change Successfully.” I’ve never attended anything like this before, so heading into it I had no idea what to expect. Well, I did an in-house academic leadership training program through the University of Alberta a couple of years ago, but that was different: I knew everybody there, and we were talking about issues that I knew would be relevant to my role as a professor and associate chair in the Department of English and Film Studies.

Driving to Banff from Edmonton, I play out various scenarios. Will it be all Type A personalities? If so, will we be competing to be the best leader in a group of leaders? Will there be prizes? No, no, I chide myself: we’re there to learn. I wonder how leadership can be taught, whether it can be taught. I’d always thought of it as more of an innate talent than a set of skills. What if I turn out to be a follower rather than a leader? Do people ever have to take remedial leadership training? I wonder whether my classmates and I will have anything in common, whether there will be any overlap in the kinds of change we have to manage. A little bit guiltily, I wonder whether there will be any time to appreciate the mountains. At the last minute I throw my skis in the back of the car – just in case.

The program is advertised to start promptly at 5 p.m. on Sunday, and it does. There are 29 of us in the class. We introduce ourselves by identifying our name, organization, a recent accomplishment, a recent challenge, our top three priorities, our inspiration, and a favourite artist or musician. No titles, no honorifics and, in keeping with mountain culture, no dress clothes. Freed from the typical social markers that too quickly differentiate managers from directors, doctorates from diplomas, we get right to the big questions, and it quickly becomes apparent that we do face similar challenges: adapting to constant change, managing mobile workforces, negotiating cultural differences, bridging generational rifts and attaining work/life balance – all while keeping up with e-mail.

I’m surprised by the composition of the group. I had assumed the program would be dominated by people from the industrial sector, but in fact we’re from all over the map: the Mississauga Arts Council, the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST), Manitoba Hydro, Telus, the Calgary Police Service, Parks Canada, energy company TransCanada, the National Energy Board. There are two women from the Government of Nunavut, five men from the Calgary Co-op grocery chain. Several are return students. Wendy Bens, an intern in the Department of Justice, Nunavut, chose this course as a follow-up to her first last fall. It’s the fifth for Denis Caron, Dean of Industrial Training at SIAST. Linda Thomas, from the Mississauga Arts Council, credits “The Art of Executive Leadership,” another Banff Centre offering, with changing her life.

The make-up of our class, roughly 30% industry, 30% non-profit and 30% government, is typical here but unusual for leadership programs elsewhere. This diversity is deliberate and a source of pride. Banff Centre executive director Nick Nissley positively bursts with enthusiasm when he talks about the Banff experience. “In the 21st century, great changes won’t come about from one loner on the margins,” he argues, “but rather from the centre, at the intersection of groups who have different experiences and sometimes even different languages. As the world grows more complicated, we need to talk with each other more, not less.”

Another thing that makes the Banff Centre special is that it explicitly links its three areas of strength: leadership, mountain culture and the arts. Outdoor activities like the Leap of Faith are supervised by experienced mountaineers; as the week goes on, we learn, we’ll find ourselves doing improv and ceramics work. Theatre? Pottery? “Every single leadership training program at the Banff Centre has at least one arts element,” Nissley emphasizes. “We believe creativity is critical. One of the things we often say about leadership training here is, ‘Look inward to yourself, look upward to these mountains, and look outward to your destination, whatever it might be.’”

The facilitators for “Leadership Challenge: Managing Change Successfully” are just that: guides to make our own learning easy. Christo Grayling has decades of experience with the Canmore-based Pacific Centre for Leadership. Karen Ryan is the president of Dynatrends Consultants, and specializes in the people aspect of organizational change. They make it plain from the outset that we’re in charge of what we want to get out of this week. They help us develop a learning plan with specific short- and long-term goals, they set us up in three-way learning partnerships, and they guide us through the content areas. Over the course of the week we respond to 360-degree evaluations completed by co-workers, we inventory our learning styles, we assess the organizational culture of the place we come from, and we examine the stages that people typically go through in adapting to change.

All of this offers valuable insights. But by far the greatest payoff comes from bringing these insights to bear in experiential learning. The Leap of Faith, part of what’s called “high ropes” training, is one aspect of that. The “low ropes” course is equally instructive. Divided into teams of nine or 10, we tackle time-limited challenges outdoors.

In one, we find ourselves confronted with a roped-off circle approximately five metres in diameter. One third of the way across the circle is a cup of water; a third of the way in from the other side, two eggs nestled in a plastic container. We are to imagine that these items are radioactive. Our mission is to save the earth by removing the water and the eggs within 45 seconds of each other. We cannot enter the roped-off circle, we cannot spill the water, we cannot break the eggs, and we may use only the tools provided in the bag at our feet: half a dozen climbing ropes of different lengths, two bits of surgical tubing, a stiff spring, a film canister of paper clips, a couple of wheels, a pair of tongs, a few carabiners, a pulley, a rat trap and a Rubik’s cube.
Our 45-minute time limit starts now.

Almost immediately differences surface within our group. A few members want to catalogue and organize everything in the bag. According to the learning styles inventory, these kinds of people are “divergers,” brainstormers who like to ask lots of questions and open possibilities, and “assimilators,” the stand-back-and-think-about-it folks, the kind who actually read computer manuals before installing software. A couple of other people in our group are already strategizing how to get the glass of water out of the circle. They are our “convergers,” the solution-oriented bottom-liners. A quintessential “accommodator,” I’m already distracted from the task at hand by wondering what the next challenge will be.

The goal, obviously, is teamwork, so even though it makes some of us itch, we give the divergers and assimilators a chance to review everything in the tool bag. That done, Kathleen from Calgary Health suggests that we divide into two groups, one to work on the water and the other to work on the eggs. Clearly she’s our project manager. Two of the men are speaking at virtually the same time: “I think that if we take the surgical tubing,” one says…. “Exactly,” says the other, “and tie it to the ropes….” Rob and Bob move away from the rest of us.

The other seven of us study the eggs. Engineering has never been my strong suit. I could bend spoons with my mind, I’m trying so hard to think spatially. Dave from Manitoba Hydro walks around the circle to see the project from all angles. He comes back to report that the eggs’ plastic container has two eyelets. Immediately we grasp the implications. “What if we bend some paper clips into little hooks?” “Right!” someone else says. “And we’ll need someone to stand over on the other side of the circle to give directions,” says a third. They’re off. Kathleen checks her watch. “Twenty-five minutes to go, team.”

Rhoda, one of the Nunavut women, hasn’t said anything yet but she’s been tinkering away on her own with another length of rope and the spring. Either the group is already splintering or there’s a backup plan in the works.

The master plan is ready to go. With a person on each end of the ropes, and two on the perimeter of the circle giving directions, the egg rescuers slowly, oh so carefully, hook the plastic container and start transporting it out. Everything’s working brilliantly. But then, disaster! One of the eggs teeters and falls out of its plastic nest. Miraculously, it doesn’t break. But now what?

Plan B! Rhoda steps up with her spring contraption, which we use as a lasso of sorts. We give the word to Rob and Bob. “Five minutes!,” Kathleen reminds them. I step back to watch them in action. They grab the water glass, lift it carefully, move it gingerly, expertly. They might be nuclear waste managers in their day jobs, they are so accomplished at this. There is no radioactive spill. The water rescued, Dave pulls Egg One out of the circle with the tongs, and I roll Egg Two out with Rhoda’s lasso. We have saved the earth, with minutes to spare.

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One Response to A Leading Question

  1. Heather Good says:

    A very interesting read with many good points about leadership.

    At one point in talking about small i leadership and big L leadership, there is a comment that you cannot change the Leader. I absolutley believe you can, but, there needs to be awareness by the individual that change is necessary and an exploration of why one must change, before change can be explored and embraced. I discuss these concepts in my Book: Conscious Mindful Leadership: Your Path to Greatness in Work and Life, available at

    If you are interested in hearing more… drop me a line!

    Heather Good, MSW., RSW
    Individual, Couple and Team Coach
    Leadership Educator