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Open Source Leadership: The future of leadership development?

Phil Dourado describes a ground-breaking form of leadership development, first described in a research paper almost ten years ago. After eight years’ real-world testing and development in one of the world’s largest companies, he shares how it works…

Phil Dourado describes a ground-breaking form of leadership development, first described in a research paper almost ten years ago. After eight years’ real-world testing and development in one of the world’s largest companies, he shares how it works…

Open source software isn‘t created privately and published to an audience. It is created by its own audience. It emerges. The users take over the system.

Linux is perhaps the best- known open source software developed collaboratively by its users.

Open Source Leadership Development – or development using ’emergent collaboration’ (1) – is an adaptation of the principle underlying the Open Source Software movement.

I first wrote about this as an idea in a research paper titled Open Source Leadership, almost ten years ago. In 2008, Tracy Robbins, then EVP HR at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), asked me to try a pilot to see if we could make the theory work – bringing together 1500 leaders scattered across the world to turn them into a global community of leaders aligned behind a common purpose with, effectively, the rest learning, by example, from the best.

How does Open Source Leadership work, then?
The users – leaders in the organisation – co-create their own leadership development system (with a bit of help from us: they tell us what they want in it, my team builds it) AND (over time) the learning content that populates it. They build the latter by sharing and critiquing, honing and finessing their own leadership practice.

So, at IHG, I asked 50 potential users, in 10-minute phone conversations each, what they needed to help them as leaders. Users in this new way of developing leaders help to design and build the online leadership system that sits in their company intranet as their own ‘community of practice’. Because ‘build it and they will come’ doesn’t work; ‘Let them build it and they will come’ is what works. 

They then help to populate the platform; sharing examples of putting leadership behaviours into action to achieve real-world business ends – discussing and sharing uncommon solutions to common problems, tapping into and sharing the group‘s collected wisdom.

Just a few minutes per session; regular sessions of ‘more-ish’ learning
All large organisations face the same problem: busy executives simply don’t have the time to stop working to learn how to lead periodically, in retreats or courses or workshops. They know that 90% of what they learn won’t be remembered, and won’t be practical enough or relevant enough to put into practice when they get back to the office.

So, we entice them to ‘develop while doing’ for just a few minutes, regularly.
This process of ‘the best teaching the rest’ is seeded by micro-lessons – low time consumption distilled ‘bites’ of learning dropped into the community regularly by the community’s facilitator – a leadership guide known as The Coach – or by members of the community themselves, to spark off conversations. The Coach then helps steer the conversation to tease out the learning.

Community members spend a few minutes at a time developing their leadership in the system, regularly taking learning out and sharing it with the teams they lead to put what they learn into practice.

What makes this different from other HR-sponsored in-house leadership development is that our community is a leadership doing system, not a talking shop. The participants don’t feel they are ‘going on a course’. They’re sharing brains with their peers; learning from fellow leaders in the company whom they respect.

Here’s one we made earlier
Eight years on, we’re still running and developing IHG’s online ‘always on’ global community of leadership practice for 1500 leaders physically dispersed around the world, but now able to learn by peering over each others’ shoulders. Here’s a glimpse of the learning community in action:

Reward and Recognition
Vince Garrington, who was GM at the Holiday Inn Chester South till recently, visited a primary school to look at how teachers inspire and motivate, a nice example of how to look outside your own experience to gain new ideas and get rid of old ones.

Vince Garrington, former GM, Holiday Inn, Chester South, UK
Vince shared what he learnt in our online Community of Practice:  that he learnt from the head teacher the difference between reward and recognition:

“When a child riding a bike shouts ‘Look mummy!’ and the mother replies ‘Yes, well done!’that’s reward and appreciation, but it’s not recognition,” wrote Vince.

‘Yes, that’s great how you’ve gone around the room on your tricycle and not fallen off,’ is recognition.

And recognition is powerful because it shows you paid attention and noticed exactly what that person did. So, a generalised ‘Well done team’ can come across as superficial.

Whereas a specific ‘Well done’ outlining what you are ‘well done-ing’ for each person and why it’s important, is far more powerful.”

Vince added: “I’ve tried that with the ops team. Praising and reward is one thing. But recognising me in a way that is meaningful to me is another.”

And that’s what we dropped into the online community as a ‘one minute learning bite’ or micro-lesson, shared by Vince, with the wording finessed a bit by my team.

And our on-line facilitator, known as ‘The Coach’ simply added this:

“PS Research shows it’s the recognition that Vince mentions above that is what’s oftenlacking and that people need more of.”

Like hundreds of other real-world tips, insights, practices shared in the community, Vince’s real-world insight has contributed over the past eight years to building a knowledge base within the community of “What great leaders in IHG do”. His one-minute learning bite from Chester South sparked off a ‘leadership conversation’ with fellow community members from Shanghai to San Francisco, trying or adapting his approach and reporting back, then adding their own learning from their experience.

To learn more about how this new form of leadership development works:

(1) Open Source Leadership, the research paper, is available on this link. The paper explains ‘emergence’ and ‘emergent collaboration’ and how this approach surfaces expertise out in the organisation that you didn’t even know was there, and then socialises great practice across the company of leaders. You’ll also find a CEB case study of the IHG Leadership Learning Community on that link, and other resources explaining how to build an online leadership Community of Practice in your organisation.

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