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Leadership-in-Action Simulation Exercise

Most Leadership programmes take place in formal settings where ‘experts’ share their wisdom with the participants (often via talk and/or slides).

It’s been gratifying to see university leadership courses introduce themes of leadership-in-action or leadership-as-practice rather than leadership-in-theory, but, for me, a major problem still remains when the main method of teaching/learning is cognitive (what Habermas calls ‘getting an education’).

The crucial leadership-in-action challenge, for me, is to remain in a grounded, embodied place so that one can make  appropriate wise decisions even when under extreme pressure. It is certainly not a time to react from a familiar unconsidered habitual response.

I’ve drawn on the theory of enactivism (Varela and Maturana) as inspiration for drawing attention to the leader’s action-in-the moment through a consideration of those hinge moments when over- or under-reaction is obvious. 

It’s still not easy!

Most leaders have developed (of necessity?) a high degree of self-confidence in their decision-making processes. Most of their post-event stories about leadership decision-making are self-generated so contain a subjective and personalised justification for actions taken. 

It’s very difficult to interrupt this pattern.

My greatest success in increasing awareness amongst executives on Personal Leadership Programmes over the past decade (LEP (UCT’s GSB), ALP (Deloitte), WAM (Massmart), SLP (MMI), PLP (Private Property)), has come when I have included a Leadership-in-Action simulation exercise. This simulation exercise is designed to give participants the opportunity to observe themselves in action both as individuals and as members of a team.

Feedback has always placed this Leadership-in-Action simulation (together with its facilitation) as one of the most impactful exercises in the programme – especially as it provided a sharp and honest snapshot of the numerous ways in which their own leadership style was letting them and their teammates down.

For example: The exercise provided me with some important lessons and reminders: Listen carefully to instructions and pay attention to everything around you no matter how small they maybe; Be calm under pressure, life is not as easy always, and can throw you curve ball unexpectedly; Team work – work as coordinated and not just as an individual.

Towards the end of 2022 as Covid restrictions ended, I invited the Class Leaders of the two Covid-impacted EMBA classes to participate in a sample experience of the micro-leadership exercise. I wanted to thank them for the extra work they had done in holding the class together and also see how this particular learning format would fit in with their EMBA programme.  They responded as follows:

Thank you and the team for today’s eye opening experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Testing what we have been learning and putting it into practice and watching myself was eye opening.

A very special THANK YOU to you for inviting us to a very exciting way of learning Leadership. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

I really enjoyed the experience and learnt a lot about myself and my behavior in a team/stressed situation.

Thank you for inviting me to participate. It was an amazing experience, and one I will definitely not forget.

The exercise runs from a Cape Town base. It generally takes place over a 4 hour period (excluding travel). It works best when offered to a (Exco) team of 5 or 6 (max!) people, although it is also possible to work 10 – 12 people split into two groups.

Please contact me by email at chris.breen@uct.ac.za if you would like further information or explore the possibility of offering this exercise to your team.