Leadership and authority in groups: An innovative and experiential leadership development collaboration

Awardees: John E. McDonough (SPH), Elizabeth A. City (HGSE), Loren Gary (HKS)

Summary: Awardees plan to design multidisciplinary workshops that use experiential learning to teach participants about group dynamics and leadership.

It’s like signing up for your most uncomfortable day at work

Awardees designed multidisciplinary workshops using experiential learning to teach participants about group dynamics and leadership. The Center for Public Health Leadership (now the Public Health Leadership Program) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s doctoral program in leadership development, and Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership jointly sponsored three group relations conferences for students (and one for faculty and staff) during the 2013 calendar year. The group organized three one-and-a-half day sessions (one in the Fall semester, two in the Spring) of 60 students each (20 from each partner school).

These experiential offerings intend to enhance participants’ systems thinking capability, essential for effective leadership. These intensive, purposefully all-consuming sessions put participants in small groups where they are asked not to accomplish tasks, but to notice the complex dynamics of leadership and authority of group life. Trained consultants facilitated to keep participants focused on this essential purpose, and to consider the ensuing questions:

  • How do people join in a task, and what factors influence their cooperation or lack of it?
  • What do we count on authority to provide and why?
  • How can we illuminate the difference between the stated task of a group and the often-unconscious tasks the group actually appears to be pursuing?
  • Which voices get listened to and why?
  • How can we mobilize for collective engagement while valuing differences?

“It’s like signing up for your most uncomfortable day at work. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable,” Fawn Phelps explained. Typically, sensitive group dynamic issues related to race, sexuality, and privilege arise in these sessions. She sees the impact on participating students because they are required to analyze their responses within the group dynamic and practice strategies that they can apply in a real work group context. “It is incredibly deep learning, and we’ve seen people take enormous leaps forward in their own growth.”

Phelps was able to witness this personal growth first hand in the Harvard Chan School participants who pursue the public health leadership concentration. These students are required, as part of their curriculum, to take a leadership role at HSPH. Phelps observed these students implementing lessons learned from their involvement in the workshop that they may not have as many opportunities to uncover in the real world: “Work on it here, then take it with you and use it when you leave.”

According to Phelps, the most well received aspect of this programming was that students valued the opportunity to interact with their peers from other schools, most notably because it reflects their professional life at the intersection of politics, health, and education. One lesson learned from this project was the importance of doing this kind of self-analytical work outside of your existing community. In addition to the three student sessions, the School also organized a session for around 40 of their faculty and staff. This session was not received as well by participants, potentially because it is too difficult to think critically about a group dynamic in which you are already ingrained.

The group dynamic work was challenging, but evaluating the methods’ impact on leadership development proved just as difficult. The team hired an advanced doctoral student from HGSE to assess the programming, but found it hard to evaluate or quantify. In addition, the logistics of cross-school initiatives can certainly be prohibitive. Phelps cited scheduling—finding 1.5 days when students from all three schools were available to attend, as well as the facilitators—as particularly challenging. That, coupled with all the other logistics of campus event coordination, highlighted the time cost of innovation: “We learned that for lasting, experiential learning, you need to give it proper space and time.”