Aspects of leadership: An action-learning experiment

November 22, 2007

An action learning experiment was carried out by group of senior officers following the principles of Reg Revans. Four teams were assembled, and examined four recent leadership cases

According to action learning pioneer, Reg Revans, the most powerful learning is profoundly embedded in sharing experiences, which can be achieved within action learning sets or groups.

In an earlier post, this was explained as follows:

The learning context must be a real working/project. Scheduled input of theory knowledge /lectures should be kept to a minimum and more time provided for workshops, meetings and questions. An independent adviser needs to be present to facilitate, help or guide when needed. An atmosphere is of openness to confronting sensitive internal issues and flexibility in terms of scheduling

In this application, the action learning sets were assembled from officers of the British armed services, all of whom were making the transition into non-military careers on a senior executive programme within a international Business School.

The Cases

Case one
O’ Neal (Merrill Lynch)
O’Neill credited with firm’s growth and success in past
Recent financial down-turn also placed at his door
‘Tipping point’ action (strategic discussions with Wachovia)
Very lucrative ‘amicable’ parting

Case two
The simple sailor (Admiral West)
West is newcomer to high-profile political role
‘Critical incident’ (He seems to reverse a decision unconvincingly)
Realpolitik versus duty?
Story simplifies and discards ‘inconvenient’ evidence of career success

Case three
Charles (Chuck) Prince (Citigroup)
Was Prince a formerly successful leader who ‘lost it’ (c.f. O’ Neal)?
His removal seems connected with embarrassing write-downs of third quarter (sub-prime losses)
Board emphasizes continuity of strategy, but with a new leader
Leader departs with honor and ceremonial gifts

Case four
Bob Nardelli (Home Depot;Chrysler)
Nardelli fired from Home Depot partly through leadership style
‘Difficult but not a ‘simple’ former American Footballer
Private equity firm (Cerberus) needs ‘tough-minded leader’ at Chrysler
Is Nardelli the right sort of leader for the job?

Leadership issues

The cases have some commonalities. Three of the four support the common perception that leaders are expected to make a significant difference to their organizations. (Case two did not disprove it, either).

All cases indicate the way in which a leader acts takes on symbolic significance to others. This is an important aspect in the new leadership model since the 1980s.

The symbolic story becomes transmitted through media and other story-makers and purveyors. Each story has its heroes, villains, crises, battles, and acts of individual valour or foolishness.

The cases also add credence to notions of leadership as being highly situational. However, they leave unanswered the question of whether the same leader willl be equally effective in different circumstances.

Leadership questions

The four action-learning sets shared their discussion findings. It would be consistent with action learning principles to treat the learning process as being mainly relevant to those within each group, drawing on their own experiences. However, it also seems consistent to report findings, providing further questions for subsequent study.

The discussions touched on situational leadership raising a point found in Machiavelli’s writings:Can you be a tough leader (and implement job cuts) and then lead the reshaped organization?
[Compare the situation with a military commander who has had to carry through a campaign that accepted major casualties in action.]

Is a ‘poor’ style usually accepted when the going is good?

Where should the buck stop in political affairs?
[Should we take a view of leadership as more distributed than hierarchical?]

Is moral courage a handicap in environments where short-termism is prominent?

The EMR concept

Discussions also resulted in an elegant three-word summary of which can be seen as the start of a simple but powerful framework for examining contemporary leadership cases. The habitual response of an academic is to give an idea a name, and mess about with it so that it looks more like a framework or model.

I will avoid the temptation (for the moment) of drawing double headed arrows, boxes, or Venn diagrams, reporting only the three elements suggested by one action learning set as capturing the main elements which permit an examination of contemporary leadership cases:



The post was prepared from materials provided in advance of the workshop, and completed following the presentations of the four action-learning teams


The Post Office Saves the Day

November 22, 2007


The Post Office offers a Christmas savings scheme to meet the needs of savers damaged in last year’s Farepak crash. This is a financial services innovation which is welcome news to many of the most vulnerable families in the community. It also demonstrates that The Post Office may still be able to develop new strategic options for itself

The Post Office has been under threat for some time. It has hardly won accolades for its leadership, as competition increasingly invades once-protected markets. The Royal Mail group continues to present a beleaguered image. Its current news bulletin begins

We apologise to all of our customers for the inconvenience and disruption caused by the recent industrial action and are pleased to announce that there is no strike action currently taking place.

The announcement concludes in less than convincing style

We are pleased to confirm that the CWU EC has ratified the deal on pay and modernisation and that this acceptance of the proposal means that Royal Mail is now able to go ahead with plans to modernise the business and make it more flexible, efficient and able to compete more effectively. We are making sure that any changes we make will not cause any disruption to our customers and where we have mail for customers, deliveries will be made each day across the country.

The Post Office and Royal Mail

As its website indicates,

Post Office Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Mail Group Ltd and operates under the Post Office® brand. Managing a nationwide network of around 14,300 Post Office® branches, we are the largest Post Office network in Europe and the largest retail branch network in the UK handling more cash than any other business…

Post Office Ltd is one of the three arms that make up the Royal Mail Group, along with Royal Mail and Parcelforce Worldwide. Post Office Ltd’s Chief Executive and non-executive Chairman sit on the Group’s management board.

A leadership opportunity?

When are there leadership opportunities? At times of great threat. Why? Because there the obviousness of the threats will have encouraged considerations of what to do about them? Doing nothing may indeed by good for rather subtle reasons. This amount to ‘doing nothing in a calculative way’ rather than in a helpless way, the latter backed up by denial. Doing something can also be backed up by denial and by false calculation.

In other words, not acting is also a possibility. Acting or non-acting can be strategies. They can be considered strategies. They can be well considered and doubtfully considered. The circumstances surrounding threat at least may increase conscious efforts to do something better and different. Sometimes the strategy has been elevated to a leadership principle of masterful inactivity.

The opportunity in the threat

My unexpected conclusion is that the Post Office has a rare asset that it carries through the financial crisis, and which is one that most other financial institutes do not have. The asset lies in the confidence of customers that any deal offered will be as near as safe as any deal can be.

The implication is that the proposed savings product, although a relatively small one, could be an indicator of futher possibilities based along the same lines of guaranteed safe and regular savings. This was the strength of the home-savings schemes and of the offerings of the door-to-door insurance salesmen epitomized by The Man from the Pru. , The Pearl, The Refuge for a century or more.

The healthy option

If this is the case, it will be a healthy option that has emerged partly as a consequence of a breakdown of trust in the current business image of high street banks and their current accounts (no pun intended). Healthy, because the good old Post Office was hardly a considered option by many ordinary people who considered themselves to have more financial savvy than to follow the untutored practice of saving with the Post Office, or with the friendly societies.

The possibility is healthy because it is not dressed up in dubious marketing promises of foolishly attractive yields. What you are offered is what you will get. Maybe, just maybe, the simple promise can not easily be copied by competitors.

Straws in the wind?

The idea is based on several assumptions. First, that the various beffetings to the international and national financial systems are producing a shift in attitudes among members of the general public. These in effect result in beliefs that banks are no longer safe havens for money. In the UK this week, the missing computer records of thirty-five million members of the public may contribute to such atttitudes for some time to come. The second assumption is that the Post Office is, in contrast, safe. Not safer, but safe.

We will see.