Unlike mathematical formulas, scientific theories or even linguistics, leadership is a skill that cannot be taught, memorized or practiced on your own. When I was given the opportunity to design and lead my own entrepreneurial leadership program at KMUTT, I knew I wanted my classes to replicate leadership in the real world as closely as possible.
Each session of my "The New Gen Executives" Program is roughly divided into two parts. The first part consists of icebreakers that do not only wake up students and keep them active and moving on lazy Friday mornings, but also implicitly teach them about leadership. The second part consists of 1-2 “Challenges of the day” for students to tackle.
For the first session, I introduced two icebreaking activities for students to take part in: Wink Murder and Chinese Whispers. I frequently played both games when I was a little girl and later on when I was a Theater student in high school. Both games teach great lessons about not only leadership, but also something that usually goes hand in hand with it: teamwork.
For Wink Murder, the team participating had to select one member to become a “spy.” The spy was asked to leave the room, while the other members decided on who would become “the murderer.” All team members—the murderer included—had to form a circle. The murderer had to kill off the other team members by winking. When asked to return to the room, the spy had to stand in the middle of the circle. He had to look and walk around to identify who the murderer was. The murderer had to be agile, subtle, careful, and smart before he made a move. The rest of the team had to also be agile, subtle, careful, and smart in the collective effort to help the murderer complete his task. When I asked my students to reflect on what they had learned from the activity, many of them said it was about teamwork. Think of the murderer as the team leader. If he was the only one doing the work, his work would have been very hard and might not have been successful. However, if everyone else helped (e.g. by distracting the spy or by pretending they were themselves “the murderer”), it would have been harder for the spy to detect the real murderer and the job would have been successful.
For Chinese Whispers, I formed teams of 9, asked each team to line up, and randomly chose the first person of each line to become the team leader. The team leaders had to come to me and receive a message to pass on to the next member in line. The message was somewhat lengthy and had a few details. The speed at which each team passed on the same message varied. Some teams were faster than the others. I also noticed there were a couple of bottlenecks and delays throughout each line. After repeating the same activity twice with two different messages, I realized the messages reported back to me by the last people of all the teams more or less varied from the original messages. It was possibly because there were so many people on each team—9 to be exact—and the messages were quite long. This activity really replicates teamwork and communication in the real world. As leaders, we always have to communicate with a lot of people: different teams, executives, employees, suppliers, clients, and audiences of many different sizes. We cannot just say what we want to say or what we have to say. We have to consider the next people in line, the people in front of us, and the people affected by our leadership. In real life, leaders have to delegate work, pass on important messages, and ensure everyone gets the work done and everything goes smoothly. Therefore, the first person of each line (the team leader) has to start off right. In this case, if the first person lacks confidence or gets it wrong, the rest of the team will lack confidence and get it wrong even if the rest of the members do their job and deliver exactly what they are told. There are many different tactics leaders can experiment with to ensure the right message is delivered. For example, as one of my students recommended, the leader can split the long message into 2-3 smaller parts. This would make it easier for the next person in line to absorb the information and he/she will be able to use the same tactic to pass on the message (leading by example). Everyone else—whether it is the 3rd person or the second last person in line—can also do his/her part. For example, after listening to the message once or twice, can repeat what he/she has heard to ensure he/she has heard the right message. This tactic also replicates the real world. To get the work done, we have to communicate with others and keep each other supported and reassured.
After Wink Murder and Chinese Whispers, I asked each team to draw two personas on the board. One of the two personas was “a good leader,” while the other was “a bad leader.” The teams were asked to annotate the personas with relevant words, personality traits, physical attributes, or sentences. All teams made similar connections for both the “good leader” and the “bad leader.” Examples of associations of the good leader include a good listener, caring, supportive, optimistic, and punctual. Examples of associations of the bad leader include self-centered, personal agendas and politics, indecisive, and command and control (with minimal help and support).
Throughout the session, I got to give mini challenges to challenge the way each student thought about leadership. For example, I asked the students whether “fear” was important for a leader to be successful. One student said leaders shouldn’t be feared because fear can lead to hate and no one (the leader and the followers alike) would be happy. Another student said there should be a certain amount of fear, otherwise no one would respect the leader or get the work done. When I asked the students what they thought about the statement that leaders must be “strict and uncompromising,” most students said “half and half.” If a leader is too strict or uncompromising, working with him/her can feel too uncomfortable, unnatural, and unpleasant. However, if a leader is not strict once in a while, no one will take him/her or the work they have to do seriously. Everyone agreed there needed to be the right balance. At the end of the day, leaders work with humans, not machines or robots. We need to master the “art” rather than the “science” of working with humans.
To end the session, I asked the students to take a short quiz to figure out their DISC leadership style (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness). Once the students identified their own leadership style (most students got Steadiness, while the rest of the students either got Influence or Conscientiousness), I asked each leadership style team to discuss pros and cons of their leadership style. Students with “Steadiness” as their dominant leadership style realized that their strengths are their ability to support, help, and blend in with others. However, their weaknesses can be how they would rather follow than lead, how they may be resistant to change, and how they prefer their own comfort zone to new challenges. Students with “Influence” as their dominant leadership style realized that their strengths are their friendliness and their ability to socialize and connect with people. However, their weaknesses are their dependence on other people’s judgments, approval, and preference and their reluctance to take action due to the fact that they care so much about what other people think of them or how they will feel. Students with “Conscientiousness” as their dominant leadership style realized that their strengths are their ability to get the work done, get things right, and stay focused. However, their weaknesses include how they can be perfectionists at times. Being a perfectionist or too task-oriented can cause them unnecessary stress and alienate them from others. I told my students that all of us are a bit of all four leadership styles. One style, however, may stand out from the rest. What is important is how we highlight our strengths and bring them to work. What is also important is how we acknowledge other leadership styles and learn to understand other people with leadership styles that are different from ours so that we can work well with them and complement each other’s styles.
The first session at KMUTT was very successful. After introducing them to leadership and challenging them to challenge their own assumptions regarding leadership, the next session will teach students about “leading a team” through practice. Each student will be given a role—either a CEO, an executive or a team member. The CEOs of all teams will receive the same brief from the client (me) and have to communicate the brief to their executives and team members. Each team will work together to develop a simple brief into an interesting and viable business idea and pitch it to the client. I believe it will be a fun session that really takes students out of their comfort zone and teach them what it is like to lead a team, lead a project, be part of a team, and represent something you and your team truly believe in. I look forward to sharing my key takeaways from the next session in my next post!