I recently finished teaching an organizational development course in which I was given free rein to cook up something compelling. I was grateful because no matter how much you’re taught about leadership challenges, until you experience one you’re just reading the menu. Better to eat the meal, and eat we did!
In one session we had a particularly instructive role-play. One of my braver students came to the front of the class to play the role of a newly hired consultant to the CEO, me. I decided to be hard-nosed, hurried, impatient, and looking to blame my employees as the sources of my problems. My student quickly recognized my attitude as a likely issue, and challenged me boldly. But the way she did that seemed patronizing to me, and I didn’t like it. So, getting into the role, I noticed I felt hurt, angry, and resistant. And, in character, I made it exceptionally clear to my student-consultant that I didn’t want to be patronized, etc. My heart was racing!
My student had to react publicly to the real feelings coming from an authority figure (the CEO or her instructor, take your pick). Not exactly the hand that feeds you, but pretty close. A key learning moment then occurred, as she acknowledged my defensive feelings about her approach. She did that by being empathetic and clear, and she didn’t provoke me any further. As the CEO I found that more agreeable, and the passion in the encounter seemed to subside. If you’ve ever been a consultant, you’ll know that delicate situations of this nature are fairly common in early meetings with difficult clients.
When the role-play ended, I began the class debriefing by explaining that being “right” gets you nowhere as a consultant if you can’t also make an emotional connection to the client. To my surprise, the class completely disagreed with me! They applauded the student (literally) for standing up to me, and they discounted the risks of her losing my trust. They thought that, as the bullheaded CEO, I needed to be challenged.
I could see that one of those perfect teachable moments had arrived: they were consumed in their attention, they disagreed with me, and their standard bearer had beat me at my own game. So I congratulated my consultant for a difficult job well-done. And I encouraged my students to continue to disagree with authority as they saw fit – I’m sure they heard that!
Then I explained my personal experience that, in character, my receptivity to the consultant had substantially suffered as a result of the provocation. I suggested that perhaps the element of pride (in both parties) might be worthy of a little more attention. They weren’t ready to go there with me right then, but I could see that my first-hand report had given them something to think about.
Now, I could have simply lectured my students on this subject, and they would have learned the concepts involved. But that is not my goal in teaching. In the social disciplines, what students need most (and what I try to give them) is an emotional experience that will provide context for the new concepts they’re learning. They need to have the feeling of being there.
I received very positive feedback about this class, and one student felt it led to a major success at work while the class was still in session. So I obviously succeeded this time with these students. I’m most pleased to know that one of them may boldly engage a CEO one day. If they were to survive the encounter, that would please me even more.