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Learn to lead as you work, but start small

03 March 2017

Apprenticeship that hones skills a step at a time is better than the one-off course, says Eve Poole

EVERYONE is mad for leadership these days, because the Archbishop of Canterbury is. The bishops and deans have their own leadership courses, and special people in each diocese are singled out to join the talent programme for the Church’s future leaders (News, 12 December 2014).

But where does it leave the rest of the Church’s leaders — the vast majority, ordained and lay, who beaver away in the parishes, and might feel overlooked by these grand structures?

The good news is that large-scale leadership and talent programmes are old hat now, anyway. The smart money has already noticed that they alienate the majority, and give questionable return on investment. This is no reason not to try, of course, and the Church should be con­­gratulated for trying. It is, never­theless, a salutary reminder.

For those who did not receive the golden ticket, what should they do about developing their leadership skills? I favour a return to a tradi­tion that used to be the only way ever anyone learned how to enter the world of work: apprentice­ship. In this context, I do not mean the first curacy: too many clergy have a lack­lustre experience of both theo­logical college and their train­ing incum­bent, and are then expected to be mira­culously job-ready, once priested.

No, I am talking about life as a craftsman, and the daily labour of leadership: what we really mean when we talk about formation. I call it “leadersmithing”. I have just written a book about it, which will be published next week. It is based on insights gained from a decade spent teach­­ing leaders at Ashridge Business School, and some neuro­biological research into how leaders really learn.

This research showed that leaders learn best from adversity. Wiring executives up to heart monitors showed a direct correla­tion between increased heart rate and increased learning, which married in with our data on the kinds of critical incidents leaders said had taught them the most about themselves as leaders. This makes sense through the lens of evolutionary biology, because we will always form the strongest memories of things we should avoid in the future.

Given that we are hard-wired to avoid adversity if we can, is there a gentler way to apply these findings to leadership development?


THE story starts with a miniature marble font that I was once given. It is made of serpen­tine, and is a copy of the font that used to be in a church in the village and fishing port of Cadgwith, on the Lizard Peninsula, in Cornwall.

There are many such replicas in museums and galleries all over the world. If you wanted to master carving serpentine, you had to be apprenticed in Cornwall, because the Lizard is the only place in Britain where serpentine is found. The tradition was that, after you had served a seven-year apprenticeship, you would copy the local font in miniature, to demonstrate to your master and the guild that you were job-ready for the big stuff.

This idea of apprentice pieces is my governing metaphor: practising leadership beautifully in miniature so that we can convince ourselves and others that we are ready to scale up. It is even better if we can learn these things under pressure.

To that end, I have identified 52 foundational practices — one for every week of the year — designed
to offer a bespoke leadership-development regime for all those who simply want to raise their game. You can calibrate the amount of pressure you apply according to your level of confidence and appetite for risk.

My 52 practices are organised as a pack of playing-cards. Here is an example that might help the many clergy who feel permanently ex­­hausted. My queen of clubs is about fuel: “Think of all the things that drain your energy: bad weather, transport glitches, annoying people, pointless meetings, IT breakdowns. Look at your diary. Can you predict any of them right now?

”Now schedule in some con­­tingency action: anything that makes you smile, restores your balance, cheers you up, or calms you down. Try these: sleep, rest, water, bananas, music, laughter, singing, flattery, dancing, beauty, joy, altru­ism, exercise, outdoors, views, per­­­spective, mindfulness, medita­tion, prayer, friends, nurture, winning. What else helps? Schedule them in to your diary now.”


AND you do not need my cards or my book to be a leadersmith. You just have to figure out all the things that you dread about your position, or feel under-resourced to do. Then you simply make an entry in your diary for some practice.

A great place to do this practice is during the parish nemesis: the meet­ing. As my six of spades suggests, a dreaded meeting could be an op­­portunity to undergo free train­ing: you could practise listening skills, asking excellent questions, sum­maris­­­ing, or eliciting the thoughts of quieter contributors. The meeting could also generate data for you to use in exchanging feedback with colleagues afterwards.

Craft skills are about day-by-day learning, not one-off courses. One-off courses can be helpful, but it is more useful to pay attention to the small things as an opportunity for the honing of your leadership muscles. After all, the Bible is peppered with stories about salt and mustard seeds; so we already know that we should be trying hard to be faithful in the little things, as well as in much.


Dr Eve Poole is an associate of the St Paul’s Institute. Her book Leadersmithing: Revealing the trade secrets of leadership is published by Bloomsbury on 9 March.

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