Can you teach a leader to lead?

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that those around me may consider me a tad cynical and that is certainly the way I started last week! 

The thing about courses in my experience is that they’re a bit overrated – those who speak on courses spiel textbook and people who go on courses all the time tend to regurgitate them (usually badly) – and when it comes to leadership in my view it’s a bit more complicated than that.

So why did I find myself on the emerging leaders programme at the Windsor Leadership Trust last week then? Lots of reasons. The first is that I was lucky enough to have been nominated to do so and because I work for a small voluntary organisation I was offered part of the cost as a bursary so it was affordable. Before I went I talked to several people for whom I have an enormous respect who had either done it or heard of it and who told me I should do everything I could to make sure I attended. Plus it was in Windsor Castle and perhaps most importantly of all I haven’t invested any time in me for a long time and sometimes having an opportunity to force yourself into some head space is vital.

So last Monday I walked up the hill trudging my suitcase behind into the gates of Windsor Castle to St George's House. It’s a fairly intimidating thing to do, committing to a week-long residential course, full not only of complete strangers but of leaders from a cross section of society. That first afternoon I remained a bit unsure – but then I realised that the people in my ‘syndicate’ were not only incredibly interesting and had a whole other perspective to bring to the party but also shared my uncertainty, so over a gin and tonic that evening I was fairly sure the week was going to be a success.

The extent of that success is of course yet to be seen – but I have been musing ever since what it was that changed my attitude from ‘what on earth am I doing here?’ to ‘this was probably the most inspiring week of my professional life’? In other words what makes the Windsor course unique.  

  • The mix of sectors – the problems and outcomes you face in  the police, the military, commercial business, the NHS, the church, local government or the charity sector may be different but the leadership challenges are fundamentally the same.
  • They don’t ram text books down your throat – you learn from one another and from the speakers who give their time to share different perspectives on their leadership journey. You have free reign to question and challenge them.
  • It’s intense but there’s time to think – whether that’s in the bar or over lunch or back in your room or taking a stroll around the castle grounds – you  are perpetually reflecting on what you’ve just heard and what it means for you, your style of leadership, your organisation or simply the way you appear to others.
  • It’s in the grounds of Windsor Castle which in itself makes it more of a retreat - your surroundings constantly remind you of how privileged you are to be there.  Late one afternoon in the manner of schoolchildren during a break in the programme we sneaked out to the pub and as we left I noticed the Union flag flying over the Castle. When we returned it was the Royal Standard – so as we had mused over a pint the Queen had rocked up to her home. It's that slightly surreal element that makes it so special.
  • The people – the chair, facilitators, speakers, guests, staff team and my fellow students – utterly blew me away with their generosity of time and insight, of ensuring everything that we did was right for us, not an imposed structure of one size fits all.
  • The humour. I can honestly say that I haven’t  laughed so much in a long time.

In essence this last week took me out of myself – made me think about every decision I have made or will make and I hope will make me a better, more considerate, more thoughtful, more successful leader in my sector with the support of my peers not just in the charity sector but across society and surely that can only be a good thing.  

The Trust’s  strapline: “Inspire, discover, transform” pretty much sums it up for me. Check it out, it’s properly awesome: www.windsorleadershiptrust.org.uk