As a sixth grader at Ridgebury Elementary, I completed my math and language homework using a workbook. In junior high, I moved on to textbooks, anthologies, and primary sources. Now, nearly 40 years later, I find myself returning to a workbook to learn leadership, an elusive skill set for many in the professional class.

The workbook is Choosing Leadership (2018) by Linda Ginzel, a Princeton-trained social psychologist who, in the late 1980s, was part of the first wave social scientists to join the faculty of major business schools. Apropos of sixth grade, Activity 1.1 in the workbook asks for our earliest leadership story. Here’s the specific instructions:

In one or two paragraphs, write the story of one of the first events or situations in which you exhibited leadership behavior. Then, reflect on why you chose the example you did. How does the story exemplify you personal take on leadership? (p. 8).

Now imagine that this instruction is part of a course in a professional school, and your work product is due no later than 4 pm for a two-hour class that starts later that evening. This past spring semester, this was the actual Week 2 assignment in my Deliberative Leadership class at Indiana Law.

According to Ginzel, “When I ask people to do this, many have a hard time” (p. 8). Ginzel explains that many of us tell ourselves stories about who gets to lead and why. Thus, our ideas around leadership tend to be underdeveloped and untested. A substantial portion of Choosing leadership is about cultivating self-understanding, which “comes from analyzing the data of our experience so that we can understand the causes and consequences of our behavior” (Id).  Hence, the workbook, which forces us to place the data on the written page.

Choosing Leadership

I became aware of Choosing Leadership through a friend who recently completed an executive ed program at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, where Ginzel serves as a clinical professor of managerial psychology.  My friend described a series of exercises that on the one hand seemed simplistic, yet on the other hand had the effect of casting his 20+ years of work experience in a new light. My friend, who is a journalist by training, was effusive about what he’d learned.

The session my friend attended sounded similar to some of my best Deliberative Leadership classes — classes designed by students using a trial-and-error methodology. See Post 056 (describing process). “The professor is publishing a workbook,” my friend said. “You should check it out.”

This past semester, I used Choosing Leadership as the core text in my Deliberative Leadership class.  The students still engaged in the trial-and-error format that has worked so well in the past.  However, I primed the pump by assigning many of the exercises in the first six chapters of Choosing leadership, with the professor completing the exercises alongside the students. The course also included a capstone assignment based on the seventh (and final) chapter, thus substantially completing the 139-page workbook.

To lead, to manage, to follow

As I planned out the summer editorial calendar for Legal Evolution, leadership emerged as a common theme across multiple authors. As it turns out, the success of virtually every idea, project or business that matters to us requires leadership as a necessary input. Yet, where will this leadership come from?

Ginzel suggests that if we can push aside the leadership stereotypes that have taken root in our head, we can fill the void.  Indeed, we think of leaders and managers as either people or a set of traits. But in fact, leadership consists of a set of behaviors that anyone can choose. For most of us, Ginzel tell us, the first act of leadership occurs when we decide that something about the future needs to change and muster the courage to act. Further, “Courage is a skill and skills benefit from practice” (p. 13).

In Chapter 1, we wrote out our earliest leadership story. In Chapter 2, we define what it means to manage and what it means to lead. For both the professor and law students, this was a very useful set of exercises, foremost because these are two very different set of abilities that need to work in concert with one another.  A second benefit is observing the enormous fuzziness of our working definitions. This is quite a illuminating for a group of soon-to-be lawyers who are prone to write-off business school concepts as nothing more than common sense. If we’re going to be embarrassed, might as well be embarrassed all at once in a group.

According to Ginzel, “Managing is no less important than leading” (p. 2). Further, by make lists of behaviors (Activity 2.1) we begin to let go of the idea that managers and leaders are people as opposed to “the same people who are doing different things at different times” (p. 35.).

Toward the end of Chapter 2, Ginzel introduces the concept of followership, which is yet another crucial area where our choices can make or break an outcome. Passive, uncritical followers are an enormous liability to any organization seeking to do great things. To illustrate her point, Ginzel includes the figure below, which is adapted from Robert Kelley, “In Praise of Followers,” Harv. Bus. Rev. (Nov. 1988).

Source: Linda Ginzel, Choosing Leadership (2018), p. 31, Fig. 2.1

“A thin line separates leading and following,” writes Ginzel (p. 32). To probe these differences, Activity 2.3 asks us to write out our answers to several questions related to effective followership, including “Under what conditions are you actively engaged and thinking critically?”, “How can you increase critical thinking in the people you work with?” and “What does it mean to contribute?”

By writing out our answers, we begin to internalize the length, difficulty, and importance of our professional development journey.

Gist

Chapter 3 is titled “Understanding gist: the core essence.”  It begins with a quote from the famous Chicago activist, Saul Alinsky:

Most people do not accumulate a body of experience. Most people go through life undergoing a series of happenings, passed through their systems undigested. Happenings become experiences when they are digested, when they are related to general patterns and synthesized (p. 38).

The purpose of Chapter 3 is to practice the discipline of extracting meaning from our own experiences. This requires reflection, which is a time-consuming and emotionally draining task that is never listed out as a formal part of our job duties. Through this process, which we need to make time for, we transform knowledge into wisdom (see id).

Fortunately, Activity 3.1 provides a simple and familiar way to get started, asking the reader to write out a 350-500 word “This I Believe” essay. My essay begins, “I believe that our greatest challenge is overcoming fear so we can live our true convictions. I learned this lesson in a very clumsy and awkward way; and occasionally I’ve forgotten it. But the lesson is true.” Cf. Post 070 (telling this story within a larger story about LegalZoom).

We read these essays in class, with some being serious and others aiming for laughs. But that was okay. The point was to get more comfortable processing life themes and testing them out by sharing them with others.

A key Chapter 3 concept that got significant traction with my students was idea of the “mezzanine.” The mezzanine is a “[level of] understanding that can be generalized beyond the current situation” (p. 49). If we can do the mental work necessary to get to the mezzanine, which is above the weeds but below the clouds, we can better connect with those around us, as we become less hung up on our own version of events and better able to share and appreciation meaning.

Vicarious learning

For some, the first surprising move of Choosing Leadership might be constructing new and valuable knowledge by recalling and reorganizing one’s own life experience.  In Chapter 4, which is “Learning from the experience of others,” we learn that “[we] can turn just about anything into a personal development activity,” including interviews, speeches, movies, books, Ted Talks, or any medium that reflects the experience of others.

The key is the creation of a “vicarious learning framework,” which is a structure or process that boils things down into something we can remember and use. Activity 4.1 requires us to draft a vicarious framework we might use in real life.

Source: Wikipedia

Although my framework was not particularly good or memorable, one of my students harkened back to her high school days when she wrote “hero’s journey” exercises for books and movies covered in the class. My student wrote, “I think the hero’s journey provides a good vicarious learning framework.” Then, referencing the graphic to the right, she wrote out a list of questions related to the Call to Adventure, Abyss, Abyss (Part II), Transformation, and Atonement. Although I didn’t realize it yet, my student was foreshadowing some of the key takeaways of the workbook, including the immense power of internal narrative to drive life decisions. Fortunately, we can reshape that narrative through the types of exercises in the workbook.

A simpler vicarious framework that few students struggled with was a Top 10 list (Activity 4.2).  To illustrate its power, Linda Ginzel wrote out a Top 10 list following a guest lecture by Sonny Garg, an executive with Uptake, an AI and IoT company.

10. Read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.

9. Management is the most noble of professions if its practiced well.

8. The hardest thing to do is to get work done through others.

7.  You can’t do something differently if you don’t change your behavior.

6. Our lives are driven by the “hows,” not the “whys.” We jump to the “how,” but if you don’t take time to figure out the “why,” you can’t get it done.

5.  Organizations don’t resist change. People resist change that they are not a part of.

4. “Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name.” — Bruce Springsteen, from “Youngstown”

3.  Treating people with respect and dignity is important for sustainable change.

2. You never want to bring anyone into the conversation if you are not interested in listening.

1. If you have a choice between reading a business book and great fiction, read more literature.

Learning from your own experience

Not everyone likes what Henderson likes. Thus, several weeks into the course, I asked my students, “What do you think of the workbook? Is this a good use of your time?” The answer was swift and resounding “yes.” Thus, I became more confident that Ginzel’s methodology was tapping into something real and important.

Chapter 5 directly deals with the topic of leadership. It starts off with Activity 5.1, which asks students to write out their most recent leadership experience. Activity 5.2 requires the creation of a graphical representation (called a “lifeline”) that connects our past lives with our future lives. Some of the entries on the lifeline are “punctuation points,” which are “negative events that are forced upon us, and therefore are out of our control” (p. 88). Through this process, students are asked to identify the five key chapters in their life story that have led them to the present day.

In substance, Chapter 5 is the closest to the ideas of some of the most well-known leadership theorists, including the Warren Bennis and Stephen Covey, whom Ginzel cites.  Yet, had we started with these big ideas, I think the response of my students would have been skepticism and confusion.

Chapter 5 ends with the admonition that questions are more important that answers. Ginzel suggests that we ask ourselves the question, “What inspires me to make a risky choice to stand up for something, to change the future?” (p. 99). Everyone is different, Ginzel reminds us. Thus, we have to answer this question on our own.

Overcoming default setting

Ginzel reminds us that she’s a psychologist by beginning Chapter 6 with a simple reading and counting exercise that every student in the class (including the professor) got wrong, even on the second and third try. I won’t spoil the exercise by providing additional details. Yet, it’s a remarkably effective way to bring our attention to the power of our cognitive default settings and the risk that we might be filtering out the really important stuff.

The core point of Chapter 6, “Being wiser, younger,” is that our own experience contains the most valuable learning. However, as Ginzel notes, “You don’t necessarily learn automatically from your successes or failures. In order to digest a happening, you need data: you need to write it down. Writing forces you to prioritize what you think is important and worthy of saving for further analysis” (p. 105). A few pages later, Ginzel quotes the psychologist, philosopher, and educational reformer, John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience” (p. 108).

In Activity 6.1, we’re asked to gather data on their strengths by seeking feedback from family, friends, and peers. With this data in hand, we instructed to probe the data for patterns. Suffice it to say, this is a substantial exercise. Chapter 6 also contains a simple role play exercise where students complete a worksheet in preparation for a negotiation. Then, during the actual session, students are instructed to take notes in the margins, using a green pen to “write down the things that you didn’t think about beforehand but ended up happening” (p. 113).

The point of all this work is to improve.  Yet, the larger point is that improvement requires work beyond just reading a book or attending class. Thus, the workbook format is entirely fitting. The graphic below, from Chapter 7, summarizes how Ginzel’s exercises can improve virtually anyone’s innate leadership capacity. Making it happen, however, requires us to make a choice to do the necessary work.

Source: Linda Ginzel, Choosing Leadership (2018), p. 117, fig. 7.2

The most heartening aspect of Ginzel’s book is that my students loved it. They were grateful that each assignment had to be turned in before class, not so the professor could evaluate its quality but because the act of writing it out required significant personal reflection. They also enjoyed hearing the perspectives of their peers, often feeling relief at the many points of commonality and inspired by some of the points of difference. The overall feeling was one of progress.

Conclusion

Ginzel begins her book with a quote from John F. Kennedy: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” When I first read it, I did not fully grasp its meaning.  However, as I neared the end of the exercises, I began to see that learning was a much larger category than I realized — that the volume of new material we add is not nearly as crucial as distilling and organizing what we’ve already taken in.