Thinking Brexit as a leadership learning event


You might think: ‘Please don’t!’ I think: Yes absolutely! The Brexit campaign will go down in history as an, probably unwanted, gigantic and live leadership learning event – for politicians, top and senior managers, and for everyone in society and organisations. Now that the dust has settled a bit from the whirlwind of activities that happened, we can harvest some conclusions, probably independent from the actual decision. I think this as an Extra – or Reflective Practice.

In contrast…

In contrast to some of the earlier posts I actually focus on leadership at the top, knowing that this is a positional and so limited view about leadership. But let’s go for it this time.

Let’s look at positive learnings…

Many have written about the negatives in this about leadership. However, the series of events around the Brexit vote has shown that people at the top of institutions in society or organisations HAVE real influence. While for good reasons we see a surge in thinking and practicing shared or bottom up forms of leadership, or proactive followership, Brexit revealed that people nominated and probably endorsed at the top have real instruments that influenced, engaged, motivated and energised millions of people.

We could observe and experience that the top can set the rules of the game, shape our sensemaking processes to the strategies they aim to pursue, influence the lived culture of such events (and maybe beyond), specify the quality (or not) of relationships they, and overall role model their very own leadership style. If you think about it quasi objectively – this actually seems to have worked out successfully.

However, for all the aspects above you can ask one more question? While all these things definitely set the public scene, what was the quality of these ingredients and what was and will be the collateral of this…? Questionable might be an appropriately open response!


There is real influence at the top, to an extent that we, and them, might not always realise. And as a learning for all people engaging in leadership: Think about your influence, it might actually work and then might hit back at us, if we do not think very carefully about how you engage and the meaningful purpose we really pursue!

Let’s add one facet: Accountability…

This is a difficult one. What is the consequence of accountability? Seeing through decisions that you have initiated, although the outcomes were not the expected? Or accountability as stepping and making space?

Try this…

Reconsider a leadership episode when in hindsight your means of leadership where questionable, but you had massively influenced your network, team, and performance. Did the quality and ethics of leadership you showed actually match the purpose you had in mind?

It would be fascinating to explore with colleagues and collaborators from that time…

Happy engaging – stay tuned…


Unleashing leadership practice. What are the ideas for our leadership learning?


Have you ever thought about ‘What is the absolute relevant scope of insights and practices for a leadership workshop that stimulates ongoing leadership learning?’ For people who venture towards becoming senior managers? You know of at least four real blows that prevent an easy answer:

  • Participants probably already participated in various leadership trainings! Everyone has his or her own journey of developing leadership capacity.
  • Most can read well and can be online. Most concepts, ideas, practices, or thought provocation are at our fingertips. And think about the massive bookshelf for leadership books.
  • We are thirsty for new stuff! However, there is so much helpful ‘old school’ thought and advice about leadership written up over centuries. So while the context in which we live and work currently changes at a fast rate, do we as humans, our functioning, change as much, or are we to an extent stable so that many existing insights and practices are still helpful? And is the new stuff really helpful and insightful for the next 30-50 years?
  • Some also say it is all about the adult learning process not the ideas, while this might only be one side of the same coin.

So not an easy one to make decent choices for the direction in the leadership learning relationship.

To help participants stretching their muscles of leadership thinking and practices, we, for now (!), elicited seven crucial blocks, in elaborate process with internal and external people.

However, while nice and neat themes, these were once core insights. The beauty and challenge lies probably in the perspectives that cut across the key themes such as:

  • How leadership plays out differently at different levels of an organisation;
  • Which main directions of influence can managers engage with in their leadership relationships;
  • Whether leadership is ‘done’ by individuals, shared or is sourced from many in collectives, events or key episodes such as change and transformation;
  • And for what do we do leadership and work in general, and why? The starting might be the purpose of leadership (see recent blog).

Try this.

In hindsight of your manager experience, what would be your core ideas, practices, hunches that you would include? Because they changed dramatically or helped to evolve your personal leadership practice and leadership identity? How about sharing with the people in whom you aim to instil leadership capacity?

And when was the last time you spend time on finding leadership inspiration?

Happy engaging – stay tuned.


Revisiting the difficult terrain of purpose in leadership


To again find your voice after a pause is an interesting process, moreover, when current incidents at least challenge the meaning and overall contribution of one’s own work.

Well, yesterday I had a light bulb moment while attending an event, thinking the following topic could do to reconnect with you all. Various speakers referred to purpose in their talks and stories. Purpose of individual people but also organisations.

The ‘invisible leader’

That reminded me of a quote that I wanted to mention and explore for a while: ‘Leaders and followers are both following the invisible leaders–the common purpose’, by Mary Parker Follett, an extraordinary scholar way ahead of her time (just search the internet for some of her writings).

Both words are critical: ‘Purpose’ with a focus on the content of an organisations mission. But also ‘common’; Our research showed that a shared obligation and connection amongst people, employees, or managers is key to making an organisation’s purpose a powerful invisible instrument.

Mark Cuddigan, Managing Director Ella’s Kitchen, referred to the role that the company’s mission plays for decision making, particularly for ambiguous situations or dilemmas they face. In those moments Ella’s Kitchen’s mission of ‘Good for tiny tummies. At Ella’s Kitchen, our mission is to create healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime’ really develops its strengths for guiding the business.

Finding, identifying, developing, shaping purpose – a journey!

Exploring the overarching purpose and core of an organisation is a deep and exploratory journey for institutions. Julia Rebholz, previously Head of Strategy at Centrica and now on secondment as Practitioner in Residence (I really like this) with A Blueprint for Better Business, invited the audience to reflect along the lines of Why do people like your company? If you are going to do that, this will be intriguing for at least two reasons. For the responses you get, but also, for finding out if the organisation has the courage to actually ask.

Sacha Romanovitch, CEO Grant Thornton UK, shared an experience that could be another starting point. How about asking something alike: If we would not exist as an organisation, for which reason would we start our business today?

Don’t get me wrong, organisations, managers, and employees have other aims and objectives to consider. No need to ignore that, but we can ask what is holding it all together

Try this.

It is difficult for yourself to start as a person again! But you could ask If you would start your paths of career, life, again, for which reason would you begin your journey?

And for your team or business? I would explore with your colleagues the questions above. That should be inspiring.

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

What a privilege for Henley to host leadership development conference


Two weeks ago we welcomed around 100 academics and practitioners at the Henley Business School for the 7th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference. A great event for our Henley Centre for Engaging Leadership’s to be a platform for challenging leadership thinking and practicing.

The theme? ‘Pluralistic perspectives of leadership and leadership development.’ Not really surprising when you follow this blog and our work at HCEL…

A very personal choice.

What did I take away from participants, countless conversations, close to 50 presentations and five keynote speakers?

We like our stability (back)

Complexity science is surely a topic for which most humans get up at night excited to learn more – not! However, I have to admit there is something to it. Simplifying Mary Uhl-Bien’s talk in a horrible way here one of my insights.

Organisations and managers throw rigid solutions at complex, multi-facetted, evolving leadership challenges. Those administrative solutions do play a role. However solely creating stability maybe less helpful when it is about creating agility.

Ever done by you? Responded to a growth and innovation challenge with more regulation and control. When did you respond to ambiguous situations instead with more freedom for people?

Unlearning! Really? Isn’t learning tough enough?

Again drastically simplifying, Mike Pedler shared unlearning as an ingredient to develop leadership. In a nutshell: What do you have to leave behind as a manager from your leadership behaviour, habits, attitudes… Want an example? In a room with 35 managers I recently asked: Who really trusts their people? About more than half raised their arms! That is helpful, isn’t it! It means for instance we can provide managers with tools to empower and create autonomy for their people, yet it ain’t happening – as long as the manager is not trusting. Here unlearning comes to the fore. How can I unlearn the long road to trust people? Can we at all?

Then there was this one conversation.

Typical, over a coffee, a few academics, managers, trainers… The topic: Are we connected enough to new forms of working, collaborating, new demands of people at all ages? Point taken! To answer with Jonny Cash: ‘We’ll meet again’

Try this.

Back to unlearning. Write a list of things helpful to unlearn in your personal leadership practice! Take this list to one or more of your peers and employees. What do they think? Anything on their list but not yours?

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

Help! Are you working in South Africa?


This Blog has been silent recently. Is there a real explanation? Actually not! We could explore my own case with concepts and practices about the capacity for self-leadership… But maybe we don’t want to do that. So much has happened recently that allowed for a leadership reflection and analysis: The UK elections, FIFA, and permanent negotiations in Brussels …

And what do I suggest? I like to connect you with an initiative here at the Henley Business School that really needs your support.

Our study ‘Exploring notions of leadership in South Africa and the African continent

If you are working on South Africa you can be part of the first ‘Exploring notions of leadership in South Africa and the African continent.

How can you help?

By following this link and completing a short survey that will help us to endeavour new practices and research. The Henley Centre for Engaging Leadership has teamed up with the Henley Business School South Africa to investigate how people experience leadership in organisations from South Africa and beyond.

This an exciting activity to gain unique insights for leadership in South Africa. Any further questions please contact me.

Try this (1).

Please consider 2 people you have been working with in South Africa and forward this study invitation to them. That is activist leadership for shared knowledge creation.

Try this (2).

Look at you last work in a project, team or network. How many cultures were represented? What did you know about the cultures represented and the implication for working together? Have you considered amending your behaviour and activities due to the diversity? Why don’t you ask one or two collaborators what they were thinking?

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

Let’s talk about how you develop others!


There was this person I met in a leadership development programme. A great thing about facilitating learning is that you can observe how participants think and behave in the environment you set up.

And here was this middle manager from one of the big banking institutions. During sessions and breaks other participants gravitated to that individual. If you have been to full-day trainings you know there are numerous reasons why people get attention.

Why him?

I learnt that he was a person who created developmental relationships with others in a very short time. Participants used him as a source for learning.

So we had long conversations how he operates as a manager. I asked what he considers as key ingredients of leading.

Guess what he answered?

One thing he surely did not say was ‘I create developmental relationship with my people.’ That is our abstract language.

He just shared what he was doing in his department: Asking questions, openly sharing his notion of leading, listing what people aspired for today and in the future, providing conditions to learn. What about the very good people in his department? Give them even more attention. He basically developed them out of his department.


Not to him. When asking why, he became a bit tense. Signalling to me that I am actually not getting it…

To him dealing with high performing people is vital. Employees and peers outside his department are carefully watching. ‘The way great people leave our department, the emotions they show at that point, and where they are going is why others want to join our department and fill the gaps. What they see is hopefully a process of learning and opportunities. I am never short of good candidates.’

To be honest

This happened ten years ago! But it vividly stayed with me. I do often revisit the situation in my mind.

Today responsibility is very much pushed as a facet of leadership. Mostly related to people outside the organisation, in society, with a rather soft voice towards people inside. What more responsibility can you feel than for the people that endorse you as a manager?

Try this.

Do you know why people join your team? How do you define your own developmental role? WELL. STOP READING, go to your people and ask them:

‘Can you develop, learn and build your leadership capability in the environment that we have created here?’ However, it is not a one-way street. So ask them what they add to their development to make it a success.

OK, YOU ARE BACK… Tell me how many people have said they can really develop in your environment….

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

Freedom to speak up – managers’ challenge of listening?


Remember what was important about leadership in mid-February? Sir Robert Francis published the ’Freedom to speak up’ report about the reporting culture at the National Health Service (NHS). This report has tragic roots in the NHS with harm for real patients and real employees.

The fascinating bit

You think, oh, UK and health care focus only! Actually not! This provides leadership lessons for every manager to improve quality, services, products – stretching managers’ thinking and practices.

The report recommends activities to make speaking up in the NHS less stressful, basically the norm. Two of many suggestions: Developing a ‘Culture of raising concerns’ where voicing issues becomes normality. Creating a ‘Culture of visible leadership’ where all managers welcome and encourage employees to raise issues. Both great recommendations. Want to read academic stuff? Look out for literature about ‘voice’.

Let’s look to the other side – managers’ challenge of listening

Managers are seen as a bottleneck. Sounds familiar? Same as in other corporate scandals. But how can managers engage in behaviours mentioned above? This is not an easy, just given task.

We are happy to claim leadership roles. We like it when people see us as leaders. Does raising issues then feel like someone challenges your authority? Employees know that and think: It is risky. That’s why raising concerns is difficult. Actual facts compete with the status we believe to have.

However, as a manager, listening and getting challenged may not weaken the relationships and influence we have. Quite the contrary. Relationships may be more durable when we can voice concerns – they show what really happens in our jobs.

People at the top – important

In the last post I mentioned that leadership is everyone’s job. Hold your horses if you thought senior managers are less important. They lead differently – not less. Role modelling and creating systems for receiving concerns becomes crucial – visible to the many. Years ago the Liechtenstein based company Hilti had a tiring but helpful motto and process – for all ranks: ‘Confront the brutal facts!’

Try this.

Think back to the last time a colleague has voiced a concern with you about the unit’s performance, processes, or services. Will the person come back to you with a similar issue? If yes, why? If not, why not? Why don’t you ask the person?

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

So what is it all about with leadership? … everyone’s job?


Leadership is such a contested ground. Countless definitions fly around in academia, practice, media. Everyone seems to have an own idea what a good leader is. Like everybody in the UK knows better how to run the NHS or the English football team! You surely have similar examples in your countries.

Let me throw this at you.

Asking ‘what defines a great leader’ is not the most intriguing but very popular question! Often trumped by: “Bernd, tell me what the five things are I need to do to be a great leader.” Honestly, this request is a bit off track. Actually there might be a few crucial ingredients. I will revisit later. However, leadership and leading is not about one individual person!

I mentioned earlier that at Henley we look at leadership as a co-created, multi-facetted phenomenon! A relationship and a process amongst people evolving over time. Not just one great gesture. Directing, mobilising, developing people has a history, plays out in the present and into the future – involving many active people.

Leadership is everyone’s job.

We love our org charts, but leadership can happen independently from formal roles. Everyone who engages in the process of leadership co-creates leading. Commissioner Dame Marsh recently puts it as follows. “Great leaders are people who are able to lead those organisations where, actually, people at the very bottom of the organisation can be just as influential as the people at the top” (Report Management 2020).

A few months ago …

…in a Henley Partnership event one participant made my day when I asked: “Where does leadership happen?” A response from a manager of a maintenance services organisation: “In our business – everywhere. Managers make as much a difference as the people on the shop floor, in our case: street sweepers. How they go about doing their work and how they voice observations and ideas can change our business. This may look like small scale for us. It is big for them – and our customers.”

Try this.

Identify in your organisation people who inspire and motivate you? Who helps you to refocus on what is really important – and how? Don’t forget to tell them!

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

Welcome to the blog on multi-facetted energizing leadership

This blog is about sharing, debating, learning, and creating ideas, insights, and light bulb moments in leadership – the thinking, being and doing of leadership.

It discusses what is moving and shaking in the world of leadership. It addresses leadership challenges people and organisations face. Let’s look at leadership, followership, energising organisations or management teams and engaging leadership. And what else is going on in societal debates, for leaders in my own practice and at the Henley Business School and its Henley Centre for Engaging Leadership. Even more I look forward to topics that we are not aware of today!

You might ask, what is leadership then?

Leadership is a co-created, multi-facetted phenomenon and so this blog by default has a pluralistic view of leadership. Want to learn more? My next blog below is a must read for you.

And why is this blog out there?

Simple! Being a hub that generates conversations, provokes and expands leadership practice, thinking, and development – across boundaries of academia and practice. Don’t forget – it should be fun too.

Who wants read this?

All of you! From practitioners to researcher to those who are just interested. I love to learn your thoughts on leadership and what you like to debate.

Who will hold the conversations with you?

For more than 15 years I have been supporting organisations, teams and individuals – internationally, across industries – in their journey to develop their leadership potential. This is rooted in research and practice. One does not flourish without the other. I am faculty for leadership at the Henley Business School, involved with the Henley Centre for Engaging Leadership and do my own consultancy work. More appetite? See the About section.

What about you?

The blog is like leadership – a journey co-created by many. When leadership is about individual leaders only an organisation is in danger and vulnerable. Hence, the blog is a co-created venture! Feel free to engage, comment and share your experiences and practical challenges…!

‘Try this.’

Up for an activity? Why don’t you ask a few peers or buddies at work: ‘What has been their biggest learning in their life-long leadership journey?’ And see how they react when you ask them.

Happy engaging – stay tuned.