Creating a Community in Leadership Programs

Recently I have seen articles from Harvard Business Review and The Center for Creative Leadership explaining essential components of Leadership Programs. They have included topic areas such as process management, critical thinking skills and strategic planning. These are important for a successful leader. What I have seen in my experience delivering nearly one hundred leadership programs is the community that is created among the participants that can help transform leaders into better people and leaders. The four things that a leadership program needs that are underling in the program are opportunities to create a safe space, a reason to care about others in class, a purpose to come together and willingness to help each other grow as leaders.


I have noticed what differentiates cohort groups that transform good leaders to better leaders and potentially better people. I can put groups that have gone through leadership programs on a continuum. One end of the continuum would be the leaders that have learned a number of things that that can help them be more effective. I have experienced good leaders that learn new skills, new models or different approaches. They can apply the model or the new approach. It helped them but it did not transform them. The other end of the continuum is a group that was transformational. They became more from Daniel Goleman’s work they become more emotionally aware and intelligent. At this end of the continuum they had an felt experience which changed them and resulted in a changed environment in which that would change the depth of the training. The emotional felt experience can result from being willing to “BE” more of who they really want to become as a leader. They can experience a confidence in themselves rather than being something society or those around them think that they should be as a leader. It is when the four things safety, care, purpose and desire to help come together do people get the greatest benefit from their leadership training experience.


The brilliance is watching it when a safe community is created and how quickly it can spread. When a few people get a sense of what is possible others around them will soon follow. Not to say that everyone will get it and get on board during the sessions. There is hope they will understand what they experienced later on and the light bulb will come on for them. It is important to note that the foundation of these programs include a common cohort group that attend a multiple phased session. My experiences have seen that the phases build, grow and stretch the participants throughout the program. Where I have seen it be most successful is when it starts in phase one with self-awareness builds in phase two about awareness of others and finally in the third phase which focuses on awareness in teams.


The first thing that is needed is creating that safe space for people to learn. People need to feel safe from a physical sense. They are not too hot or cold. There are not any obvious physical concerns that they have about what might happen. The safe space that I am focused about is that of emotional and personal interaction safety. It must be an environment in which people are willing to get out of a place in which they are very comfortable and move to a place in which is a little uncomfortable and they can learn. Never pushing them to a place beyond the learning zone to a place in which they are in a terror zone. The terror zone is a place that they get defensive and protective of self and they cannot learn any longer. If this is truly a safe space and if someone is in their terror zone then someone notices and helps them find comfort or the person is self - aware enough and asks for what they need to get back to the learning zone. Recently, I experienced that terror zone experience. We were asked to share what our biggest vulnerability was. I shared that I wanted to be sure to that I learned from the activity and that I wanted to have a great take away. I admitted that I could name a vulnerability that would push me to that impactful learning. I was told that I did not get to claim one because I just was not capable of taking anything away from the activity. Hearing that statement created an unanticipated emotional reaction that put me in my terror zone. I was self-aware enough and I discovered that I learned from noticing and experiencing that reaction. I was able to get myself back to the learning zone. At the same time I was surrounded by people that did not want to see me in my struggle and took the initiative to help me out of my terror and discomfort. They were creating that safe space for me. Those around me felt safer as well because of what they experienced.


Safety must be experienced and tested to see how the group reacts when someone stumbles. It can occur if the group sees someone make a mistake. How does the group react to it? Reactions can be sharing where they have done the same thing, laughter of the experience and not of the person, curiosity, positive support and a willingness to learn from the experience. There will be a feeling that there is not a consequence to the person or the learning community. This will allow others to take bigger and bigger risks to test the water of the response. If there can be a feeling that there were no judgments put on someone then in future experiences then people would expect the same.


I recently experience a group in which the level of safety was greater than most. There was this feeling in the air and almost an aroma of safety with the group. Participants shared with me that they noticed it as well and they were trying to put their finger on what occurred to create such a safe community of leaders. There was a desire to put a name to it or a process around it so that it could be repeatable. It is what can happen when like-minded caring people come together. Right from the first moments the group was together they felt safe. This came before they felt and experienced trust. From the beginning there were examples where people supported one another. If a name was forgotten a few people stepped in to help remind one another. It was done of a place of love versus a place of fear. No in the group wanted anyone to feel embarrassed for forgetting. People were willing to be vulnerable and admit that they forgot a name, did not listen to instructions or could not understand a concept. They were willing to admit it and they were not judged by others. They felt safe and loved.


This group was willing to embracing the difficult conversations. These are the types of conversations that in the past may have led to conflict and confrontation. They did not avoid stating how they interpreted a comment or how they felt in the moment. And their honest and openness was received with kindness and respect and in the spirit of wanting to understand a different perspective. They were willing to bring up and talk about the elephant in the room that people know is there and everyone has been willing to avoid it. It is a joy to watch a group talk about it in a kind and supportive way. They had such a desire to fix or overcome a barrier that was getting in their way of agreed upon success.


I have experienced a number of these types of groups and every time that I do then I know that I want to experience more. A few common things that have existed are:

· Laughter/fun for the sake of community not at a person

· Calling out what is seen from my perspective both positive and destructive

· Willingness for vulnerability and usually starting with me

· Starting from a place of love and never a place of fear

· Optimism and support from and to each other.


These are the groups that are one of the reasons that I love what I do. These are the groups that I challenge and encourage them when I make the statement. Imagine what the world could be like if they could create what they have created with their cohort learning community if they could create it in their living communities, teams and lives.