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6 Things to Look for in Leadership Courses

6 Things to Look for in Leadership Courses
Published: April 11, 2016
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Impact's Senior Consultant, Richard Little, shares his six top tips on how to choose the right leadership courses.

As global leadership development experts we meet managers at every career point, from entry-level to the board. Increasingly we are tasked with helping them excel at adaptability in a turbulent organisational context. At Impact, our approach has never been to pump people full of models and theories, but to create experiences that help people find out for themselves how best to collaborate and achieve significant goals. We do not deny the importance of knowledge in leadership courses, but we deploy experiential and direct learning methods in contrast to the chalk and talk lectures or formulaic case study discussions that characterise many university leadership degrees.

This puts us – an organisation pursuing excellence in leadership development practice – in something of a quandary. How do we continue learning organisationally, and how do we provide our colleagues with opportunities to gain know-how and qualifications in leadership development? I'm often asked, by clients as well as colleagues, ‘What degree do you think could help my work?’ I may be tempted to hand them a prospectus for a master's degree in performing arts or philosophy, but I know people need something closer to the practice of management and its development. What I look for, and what I recommend you look for when assessing a leadership course is one that can answer positively to these six questions:

Does it relate leadership to social change?

This has to be your very first question. Too often we see questions of leadership reduced to a skill set that has little political or philosophical content or implication. To approach it that way is not only wrong but will result in a boring course. Leadership is about solving intractable problems and achieving significant goals – it demands attention to current public challenges. It raises age-old philosophical questions. Critically, many courses equate leadership with the leader – with senior individuals invested with authority. They may fail to address the possibilities of leadership without authority and questions about how change really happens in organisations and societies.

Does it take an interdisciplinary approach?

The top business schools may seem glamorous but mainstream business and management education is often too narrowly focused on a growth-fixated Western, corporate model and simply doesn’t register the importance of sociology, philosophy, psychology, economics and public policy in shaping management, business and leadership.

A good education needs to draw on a range of disciplines, including sociology, philosophy, psychology, economics and public policy. Some business schools recognise this but many do not. Don't get stuck in a degree studying 2 by 2 matrices all year and the latest management consultant fads.

Does it fit your schedule?

This is a simple one. Look for a leadership course that recognises people like you who want to have flexible learning, where you can do a mix of online study and in-person residential weeks. But check they won't bore the pants off you during those residentials with traditional lecture after lecture. Also consider if you want to keep visiting the places where the residentials are held.

Does it take educational method seriously?

Many of us have uninspiring memories of scribbling notes in tiered lecture theatres, or more recent experiences of PowerPoint pain. The great thing about the ability to study more online is that when you do come together with your fellow students you can explore the discussion and application of ideas rather than receiving yet more content. Only some universities get this and seek to take people out of the classroom on 'learning journeys' whether in urban or rural settings. Ask if yours will.

Does it seek to support the development of worldview and sense of self?

Taking a masters course is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime process for you. So, to use it for anything less than an opportunity to grow and transform yourself would be a terrible waste. Forget getting 'trained' and look to be challenged and messed with and emerge a new you. To get a sense of that, I recommend you talk to past students on the leadership course that you are considering.  

Does it bring together the kind of people you want to become colleagues with?

The best courses create friends for life. Whereas going to university at 19 years of age creates friendships from being neighbours on a corridor, going to university for a professional purpose can create friendships that become an ongoing learning community that is critical to your future performance and joy in work. The most interesting comrades may be found in unusual universities, so again, consider having a chat or email exchange with alumni of the course you are considering.

There are more factors to consider, but these are my top six. Having looked at a range of leadership courses, I'm pleased for my colleagues that some of the best I know of are around the corner from our head office in England's beautiful Lake District. Designed by Professor Jem Bendell at the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, these courses are flexible, interdisciplinary, experiential and regard leadership from a critical perspective motivated by a concern for the state of our world. They are bringing together people involved in both social change and leadership development, who are reporting life-changing experiences through discussions they have on the courses. Building on a Post Certificate in Sustainable Leadership, their new MA focusing on Leadership Development launches with a one-week residential in September 2016. That's a gorgeous time of year in Cumbria, so I'm looking forward to going along and enjoying a meeting of minds.