Leadership development - a walk in the park

Leadership development - a walk in the park

Two of our consultants Penny Mavor and Roy White recently went on a walk together in the hills near our Headquarters close to Windermere in the UK. They ended up discussing how walking, talking and nature combine to help leaders slow down and reflect and how important, but so undervalued this is as part of leadership development. Here’s the first part of their conversation.

Roy: How are you doing ?

Penny: Ah (taking a deep breath of crisp winter Windermere air) "all the more better for being out here to have a walk with you. What a great idea!”

Roy: Likewise, it’s nice to have a chance to have a catch up with you in such nice surroundings. I noticed that you’ve been using a lot of solo walks and reflections in your programmes recently. I always think that this is quite a brave thing to do as the people we work with often have difficulties in slowing down and reflecting. How’s it been ?

Penny: It's been fantastic. It never fails to amaze me how simple and profound it can be. Drawing from your Going The Distance programme, one of the most profound moments on our executive programme is the walk and talk they have in pairs, as they make their  way to the mountain hut, about how they are going to look after themselves better. The invitation to do this, is often met with resistance. People don't see the point, they feel uncomfortable, physically and emotionally. But then they end up having the richest of conversations, talking about their well-being, whilst doing something about it. What has been your experience?

Roy: Similar, there is usually some initial resistance and then a building up of that nice sound of good conversations starting to take place which is followed by  a difficulty in stopping people. It reminds me that there is growing evidence of how we react differently in nature and that this seems to tap into something within us that creates a sense of psychological wellbeing (Webb et al, 2017) . There is also something about walking side by side that has been shown to aide deeper conversations. I also like the concept of solos, how have you used these ?

Penny: Haha you are right...the irony of our role - we spend our energy getting people to talk or trying to stop them doing so. And funny that science is finally catching up on what we already know and feel - that being in nature does make us physically, mentally and emotionally more connected. What do you call them? No shit Sherlock studies. And to your point about the side to side walking, in a recent coaching session with a European executive, he told me how he has committed to having 30 minute 1:1 sessions with everyone in his department. He takes them all on the same walk - and was telling me how much he has learnt about each individual, not only in the conversations, but how they walk with him. It was so lovely to hear his reflections, how the walking helps them relax, how they get in a good rhythm of a relaxing conversation. In fact, I still remember this same leader's reflections from the solo experience he had, as part of the programme. Everyone's experience of doing a solo is unique, but he talked about how at the start of his two hours his mind was racing -  making lists, thinking and thinking some more - and then bit by bit as time went by, probably unconsciously helped by mother nature, he said he became quieter and quieter, and started observing what was around him, and what it was stirring inside him, he became curious about it all. He returned with a more profound understanding of what was important to him.

And that is why we use solos - inviting leaders to step away from their busyness, and to tap into their sense of self and purpose.

Recently, we planned to incorporate just a 60 minute solo for this leadership team, but in the end, we invited them to do a solo walk. One by one they set off down the track, and stayed in silence, at a distance from each other. It ended up being a highlight - and how valuable it was to have that time alone..and feel, see and hear the collective footsteps in front and behind, supporting each other.  

What have you learnt about how leaders slow down and reflect?  

Roy: That they don’t normally do this and find it uncomfortable at first, as if they feel that they are being lazy and not doing ‘proper’ work. It’s the same predicament that we see in athletes where they don’t always value recovery, when in fact, it’s crucial to growth and improvement. It can also be interesting as a facilitator to say to a group that the way in which I’m going to be working with you for the next couple of hours is to leave you on your own. However, as you say, once people experience the power of reflection and recovery they start to see the value. This is enhanced when in takes place in nature although the mechanisms of why this is are still being understood. If I am asked ‘what one thing would you recommend me to do to improve leadership in an organisation?’ I will always answer, take time to stop, think and reflect and try to place as much value on this as we do on planning and action. How do you think that we can help leaders to be less reticent about this?

Penny: It is a great question - for individuals but also because it  taps into a universal human challenge. Our ability to reflect is a human gift - but also our primitive wiring gets us trapped into over-controlling and overdoing. And so I think we can help them to see and feel that. To experience it, by pausing, by reflecting and recognising their default position. Maybe it is a well posed question, to get them to look into their own reticence. Or asking when do they feel most creative and resourceful. Inevitably they will come up with their own answers. And to your point, using analogies in sport, nature and daily life, they come up with their own about this need for both action and reflection, sow and reap, kneading the dough and letting it rest.

To be continued...

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