A Leadership Exercise LO2691

Wed, 6 Sep 1995 23:53:14 -0400

I apologize for not responding sooner. I posted a message some time back
which has generated a little bit of discussion as well as requests for
more information. Along the way I lost some of the replies so I will not
be able to specifically credit those to whom I refer in all cases. I will
do my best.

The game I referred to in the original posting is simply this. 6 or 7
people are blindfolded and placed around a circular piece of rope. Each
must maintain a hold on the rope with at least one hand at all times. One
person is then selected as the leader. This person can remove his/her

The leader is the only one allowed to speak. The leader must guide the
group along a path that is indicated by the consultant working
with/monitoring that group. The leader can do whatever s/he needs to do
to move the group except let go of the rope. The leader is responsible
for the safety and well-being of the group at all times.

Some "leaders" try to steer the group like a rudder. They remain in the
back and give directions like "go left" or "go right." These can be
successful until the consultant starts taking the group through rougher
terrain such as trees and undergrowth. Then things start to fall apart

Others try to maintain their relative position TO THE GROUP (i.e. on the
side of the group) rather than re-orienting the group to allow them to
lead from the front. This, again, can work for a while but quickly falls
apart when more difficult tasks are required of the group.

A note here: The consultant has a responsibility to all participants to
watch out for their well-being. This is why the consultant indicates the
path for the group. That way the consultant can ensure that the path,
while difficult, is not impossible or particularly dangerous. When one is
blindfolded even a leaf can seem like a large tree branch. Also, if
participants start to have trouble with any part of the path (feet
catching on vines or running into trees, s/he stops the group and makes
the necessary corrections to the situation.

This original leadership situation continues for about 10 minutes while
the group establishes some sort of communication system, gets frustrated,
and generally is ready for a change. At that point the group is stopped,
the leader told to replace his/her blindfold, and a new leader selected
from among the group.

This new leader removes his/her blindfold and continues following
instructions from the consultant. These instructions are given via visual
signals as much as possible so as not to displace the leader's position
within the group.

The new leader must orient the group to his/her position, style, etc.
This often includes physically turning the group so that the new leader is
now in front of the group. It also frequently includes making changes to
the group's procedures of communication, movement, etc.

This rotation continues until most of the group has been the leader. At
that point the group is stopped, blindfolds removed, and the activity

This activity is intended to teach the importance of effective
communications, the connectedness which exists within a cohesive and
high-performance group/team, and the need to keep things as simple as
possible/only as complicated as necessary.

Those who are successful as leaders in this activity do actually need to
move physically to the front of the group. In that sense, this activity
tends to produce these results. But, just as this activity is a metaphor
for the workplace, moving to the front can be a metaphor for being "out
front" in the sense that Dave Buffenbarger has interpreted the term.

>As I saw the writing from Clyde, it really was that leaders
>are OUT FRONT. Not necessarily physically as we might see in
>marching. Not necessarily first, foremost we think of when
>we imagine people who are first to talk, first to act;
>compulsiveness par excellence. No, out front in the
>metaphorical sense, meaningful sense.
>My meaning for "out front" (and in a Learning Organization) is
>a person who formally or informally helps others to feel
>comfortable taking a risk now and then, helps people dig out
>what is in them to offer a better future for mankind, a person
>who says if you need to someone to go first - I'll go ..... <snip>

The problem with applying this learning comes when we take a traditional
view of organizations. When we look at organizations as hierarchical
structures, the managers are the only ones who are "out in front." But
when we take the view that organizations are actually communities with all
of the requirements and potential idiosyncrasies of any other community,
that all changes. (Yes, this can be a problem for the military where one
cannot simply move to another community, but even that can be overcome).
Those emergent leaders who appear to be "in back" or "on the side" are now
actually moving "out front."

I stand behind the distinction between leader and manager (or any other
title). Usually the one who is most technically proficient gets made the
supervisor. No management training is offered except that which is
modeled by others who have had no management training, either.
Unfortunately, those who are modeling the management "way" are often
woefully short on leadership skills and ability. This shortcoming gets
passed along as well.

Those who rise to be made managers and higher executives are too often
promoted because they got results of some kind. These results are not
necessarily due to their leadership but their managership or their
commandership. Remember, managers and commanders can FORCE you to do
something. A leader INFLUENCES you to do it on your own.

A manager who claims great cost savings or productivity improvements but
decimates the morale and effectiveness of his organization in the process
is certainly NOT a leader. I have seen many of these.

Another learning which can be worked into the activity I described earlier
is that the leader of the group does not always have to be the officially
designated manager. Often a natural leader exists within a work group who
can get the group to do whatever is needed. Consider the experienced
staffer who sits back in a meeting where the boss' decision is being
debated (read: argued) with the boss. After a time this person speaks up
and offers an alternative which does not fully satisfy everyone but still
gets the job done and everyone can get behind it. This person has stepped
"out front" and become a leader. I have used such people in the past by
empowering them, both formally and informally, to achieve the results we
needed. Then I GOT OUT OF THEIR WAY.

Insecure managers tend to "kill" these people rather than recognize that
they have this ability and to put these people to use in moving the
organization in new directions. The result is a "leader" who "gained"
that recognition through threats and coercion ("If you don't like it here,
leave." "It's my way or the highway." etc.) A key indicator, to me, of
the presence and level of leadership, especially within a TEAM, is the
willingness of members to share that role.

Following this line of reasoning points out what I believe to be a flaw in
much of the discussion and literature about leadership. That flaw is the
focus on viewing managers as leaders by default. Timothy Smith said it

>Leadership arises from the ground of the individual's being,
>regardless of place in the hierarchy.

The "tease" in all of this is that organizations appoint someone as a
manager and tell them that they are their organization's leader. This is
utter folly (I don't mean to be so declarative here, but it is). A
manager is only the group's leader when the group begins to willingly
comply without threats of coercion. The group anoints him/her the leader.
This does not mean that the group always thinks that the manager is right
or always likes the manager's decisions. Still, they can get behind the
decisions and willingly make them work.

The military is not as highly centralized as many think and it is not so
easy to slam someone who decides that they don't want to do what you tell
them to do. The military's mission hasn't been clearly defined since the
early days of VietNam. I don't advocate it as the definitive model. As I
(and others) said, it has a lot of flaws. These flaws are evidenced by
the great many who habitually command rather than lead. They didn't
understand the difference between leadership and managership /

Despite these flaws, though, that system DOES provide some good methods
for teaching leadership techniques and integrating them into the role of
being a manager. The learning organization terminology for these is
management flight simulators. It is sometimes necessary, though, to
augment these methods with bridges from the laboratory back to reality.
Which brings me to what was (to me) supposed to be the point of my
original posting.

The technical side of leadership can be taught to almost anyone. But
simply knowing techniques doesn't make you a leader. Leadership is
developed. It may not show up in an individual until a specific situation
occurs wherein they can/do become a leader. For others, such displays of
leadership may be a standard way of doing business. Leadership is not
dependent upon being a particular personality type or coming from a
particular background.

The question to answer is: Are people doing what you (the manager)
want(s) because they are afraid not to ... or because they are convinced
that is the appropriate thing to do. Corollary to this: When your (the
manager's) back is turned (gone to lunch, on vacation and such) will they
continue to do what you asked without coercion? Or do they actually
perform more effeciently and effectively when you (the manager) is away?

I'll stop for now.

Clyde Howell
The Howell Group
Aiken, SC