Zensiblo Consulting

Learning by Doing – Experiential Leadership Development

The fast-changing landscape of business today requires leaders with superpowers. You’ve got to roll with the punches, inspire your team, and keep the innovation fires burning. That’s where experiential leadership development comes in – it is not the typical classroom type. It is more like learning by doing, and we’re going to dive into it in this article.

What is Experiential Leadership Development?

Experiential leadership development is a hands-on version of leadership training. Forget the passive and boring times in a classroom. This method throws leaders into live-action scenarios where they have to put their skills to work. It’s all about learning through action, reflecting on it, and getting feedback for improvement.
The program can take on many different forms – from indoor to outdoor activities and challenges, from simple tasks to complex simulations, or from structured to unstructured organic scenarios.
In fact, experiential leadership programs can run from specifically crafted contents, such as business simulation exercises (computer-based or live), to dynamic game-like activities like orienteering, and team puzzle solving.
Learning takes place through reflection, or just-in-time briefing and applications, that fit the specific design.
Image that it is now 9 am in the morning, and you suddenly need to prepare a lunch for a group of over 50 people, and all you have now is a large kitchen, a supply of ingredients (without recipes), a dining venue yet to be arranged, and 50 people in 6 teams. How are you going to make the lunch happen?
This is exactly what I have organized for a client to develop potential leaders.

  • Will someone proactively lead the actions?
  • Will they organize themselves?
  • How do they coordinate themselves?
  • How will they make decisions together?

The event was challenging and also fun! What happened was so rich that more than a day could be devoted to reflection and learning.
Take another example, a team of managers was given a number of projects/tasks to complete within 15 minutes. A very short experience, right? But the review and debriefing went on for hours, going from how work or project should be organized, to how to team dynamics, and how to handle productivity and stress.

What Makes Experiential Leadership Development Shine

1. Immersive

These programs create immersive experiences for leaders, such as outdoor team-building adventures, business simulations, or reality-show-level role-playing. It’s like leadership boot camp, giving you a safe place to practice and learn from your experience.
The immersive format creates contexts where the leaders really exercise their behaviour “naturally” while not pretending or following scripts. By leveraging on the act-reflect-learn cycle, practical learning can be facilitated.

2. Real-Life Challenges

Leaders don’t sit around twiddling their thumbs. They face real-world problems that mimic the head-scratchers they deal with at work. They’ve got to make calls, manage resources, and lead teams. It’s like a leadership endurance course, and you come out stronger.
In fact, we can turn any situation into a learning opportunity. Sometimes, it happens unexpectedly (to the participants) in our sessions.

3. Reflect and Learn

After you’ve tackled these challenges, there’s a sit-down where you reflect on what went right, what went wrong, and how you can get better. It resembles watching the replay of a game to see where you can score more points.
Learning will be stronger and more effective when it is associated with real-life experience and outcomes.

Benefits of Experiential Leadership Development

1. Better Problem-Solving Power

Experiential learning sharpens leaders’ problem-solving abilities. When you’re dealing with real issues, you’ve got to put your thinking cap on, come up with solutions, and make decisions in the heat of the moment. Unlike classic case studies which are just remote, after-the-fact exercises, the challenges are there with the clock really ticking.

2. Enhance Interactions with Others

Being a leader is about interacting with and influencing others. Experiential development puts you in the hot seats of interacting with people. When you’re working with others, you learn how to get your point across, listen actively, and switch up your communication style.
The learning environment is also a place for great peer learning. You learn from fellow participants in addition to the challenges.

3. Confidence Boost

Experiential learning takes on the path of improving from where you are and focusing on what makes you better, rather than comparing your current status to the “ideal” leaders. This helps build confidence through seeing oneself getting better along the way (instead of the forever disappointing fact that you are still far from the ideal.)
By facing these challenges head-on and getting feedback, you accumulate the “experience points” that add to higher self-confidence.

4. Adaptability Gains

By putting leaders in continuously changing contexts and surprises, experiential leadership development enables you to be flexible and adjust your game plan to match the situation.
Good programs may also leverage on ad-hoc real-life incidents to create even richer learning results.
There was a time when the training venue experienced a sudden power outage, which was used as an opportunity for the participants to find a way to continue the program and review their patterns in responding to undesirable incidences.

5. Team Bonding

If there were no teams or followers, there would be no leaders. A leader and the team are tightly stitched together. Therefore, experiential activities often involve team-based exercises. Enhanced connection and understanding among team members, better collaboration, and smoother communication are usually the “by-products” of the program.

What If I Want to Experience?

Nowadays, there are many providers of experiential leadership development. Some specialize in using certain contexts, such as outdoor orienteering, zipline, wargame, etc.
My company, however, does not focus on fixed formats. Rather, we like to experiment with the clients. Currently, we are developing our “You’re Invited” series, which is based on our belief that “everything can be a valuable learning experience.”
Each program will be specifically designed for a client and starts with an “invitation to join” without much detail.
If you want to know more, stay tuned.

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