Leadership is an on-the-job skill that, like a muscle, becomes stronger the more it is practiced. Yet leaders need new settings and challenges to elevate their skills. This is one way in which the Tobias Fellows program provides a unique opportunity to leaders, according to Timothy Baldwin, Randall L. Tobias Chair in Leadership, department chairperson, and professor of management at the IU Kelley School of Business.
“Experience is a really good teacher, but it’s a very inefficient teacher. A program like the Fellows accelerates the learning experience because you simply couldn’t get all those exposures doing your job on a daily basis,” says Baldwin.
“The program broadens leadership competence by examining it within so many different contexts, manifesting in many different ways. It’s not something a leader can achieve in their daily roles.”
The experiential and immersive learning environment of the Tobias Fellows program provides myriad opportunities in which leaders can implement new lessons and challenge old habits.
“In any good pedagogy in education, if you’re trying to generalize great principles it’s going to come across best within context,” he says. “What the Fellows does is expose you to a whole series of other leadership contexts: a monastery, a sports venue, an academic environment, a variety of other corporate environments. It opens your eyes to the breadth of leadership.”
Baldwin has been researching and instructing on leadership and management for 30 years. He investigates the best approaches and outcomes in leadership to gain practical lessons. Baldwin says an evidence-based approach to leadership education is critically important.
“Research-based perspectives are almost self-evident in medicine or in finance. If I told you I had a great stock option or new cholesterol pill, you’d want to see the evidence before investing,” he says. “But in behavioral sciences such as leadership, people get very anecdotal with learnings – often modeling lessons after someone. That’s a fairly shallow approach.”
While there’s no secret recipe for creating a great leader, Baldwin says his goal is to move Fellows toward decisions and away from descriptions. Whereas some leadership education extols principles such as memorized lists of characteristics of leaders or teams to be overlaid onto situations, Baldwin believes leaders at this level already understand the fundamentals – they simply need to gain hands-on experience using them.
“The battle is not knowing, it’s doing,” he says. “It’s a bit like knowing the rules of golf but not playing any better. You’ve got to get out there and take some shots, fix your swing, and work on your stance. I use that analog in teaching leadership: let’s make decisions. I teach by plunging the leader into the situation using case studies and illustrations, and then they must learn their way out. Let’s first do, and then learn.”
Baldwin admits that leadership and management can be burdensome roles – difficult, elusive, unpredictable, and even sometimes mundane in their daily rituals. But he believes the Fellows in this program build on a joy of leadership and finding the positive learning exposures inherent within diverse situational challenges.
“These people get inspired, they want to make their organization better and take on higher leadership experiences,” he says. “To me, that’s as much or more valuable than any particular skill set or competence a Fellow gains- it enhances the joy of leadership for the top people handpicked to manage an organization. The last thing we want to do is discourage leaders. An inspired leader can leverage what they learn and successfully manage an organization so that everyone wins.”