Investing in leadership development

21 July 2015

Leadership development is key to improving your business and sustainability. In this guest article Rodger Spiller from Money Matters offers advice as to why it’s important to develop leadership, drawing on literature and lyrics throughout the ages.

As a responsible investment adviser I am passionate about improving the quality of business leadership because leaders can make a big difference – for better or worse – in the sustainability and profitability of my clients’ investments. A key to improving leadership quality is leadership development, and an important question that responsible investors could ask is, “What is the extent and nature of the investment made by the business in leadership development?”. Specifically, does the business place sufficient emphasis on development, as, according to Harvard’s Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey, the lack of such emphasis is a major failing of most so-called ‘leadership development’.

Since completing my PhD on responsible investment and sustainable business I have continued to research leadership development through the lens of the responsible investor. In recently certifying with Kegan and Lahey I saw the value in how they approach this deeper developmental dimension through a process they describe as ‘Overturning Immunity to Change’. The next frontier for my encouragement of deeper leadership development is the work of The Center for Courage & Renewal that is now being offered in New Zealand. Following is an introduction to this approach.

What would become the Center for Courage & Renewal was founded in 1997 by author and social activist Parker J. Palmer with Rick and Marcy Jackson. The Center aims to create a more just, compassionate and healthy world by nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it.

I came across Palmer’s writings in research for my PhD. Referring to Socrates, who said, “An unexamined life is not worth living”, Palmer adds, “If you decide to live an unexamined life, please do not take a job that involves other people!” Reflecting part of the depth dimension of the Center’s approach, Palmer observes, “A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.”

The Center for Courage & Renewal encourages leaders to explore and enquire into their inner and outer worlds. In an approach that is rare in leadership development settings, the Courage to Lead® retreat explores important topics metaphorically, using poems and stories that embody the topic. Palmer calls these embodiments “third things” because rather than representing the voice of the facilitator or participant, they have “voices of their own, voices that tell the truth about a topic” and evoke from us what our authentic or deeper self wants us to pay attention to.

Highlighting the potential and challenge of this approach, Palmer cites T.S. Eliot and notes that what Eliot said about poetry is true of all third things: “(Poetry) may make us… a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves”.

In the Prelude to his book A Hidden Wholeness Palmer quotes a Leonard Cohen song, The Future, which refers to “the blizzard of the world” crossing the threshold and overturning “the order of the soul”. Leaders experience this blizzard in many forms, including an ever-increasing volume and velocity of challenges and complexity. The blizzards faced by business leaders can cause them to lose sight of what matters most and to lose their sense of orientation.

Palmer describes how: “…farmers on the Great Plains, at the first sign of a blizzard, would run a rope from the back door out to the barn. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and been frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards.”

In response to the subject of “The Blizzard” and the Leonard Cohen lyric you might take 15 minutes to reflect and write in a journal your answers to the questions (NB: If you don’t think you have time to do this, that very response highlights the potential value for you of this reflection):

  • What is the nature of the blizzard(s) in your life and work?
  • What contributes to it?
  • What does it feel like to be in it?
  • What does the blizzard obscure?
  • What gets “lost” when you’re in it?

A companion exercise, about tying the rope to the barn, is to work with the poem “The Way It Is” by William Stafford:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Questions for reflection on this poem are:

  • What are some threads – personal beliefs and convictions that you try to hold onto in your life and work?
  • What helps you hold on to them?
  • What makes it difficult to hold on?
  • Have you ever had to explain about your thread? How have you talked about it?
  • What might it mean to ‘follow’ your thread, rather than pull or push it? How does that change things?
  • What does it feel like to be separated from your thread? Say, by losing something, or choosing a path that isn’t really yours?

I began a recent Introduction to Courage & Renewal workshop with these exercises then explored a range of related authentic leadership subjects drawing upon the work of the Center for Courage & Renewal. Participants at the introductory session said this approach: “Provides the opportunity to reflect on what courageous steps need to be taken to align your outer life with your inner values – excellent”; “Excellent workshop – an opening of the doorway to explore myself in a reflective and deeper way. Highly recommended. The use of poetry contributed to the strength of this workshop”; and “Rodger created a rich and safe holding space to explore living authentically. The day was very well-crafted, facilitating new depth of understanding and awareness”.

The introduction was a preview of the Courage to Lead® retreat that starts at 5pm Friday August 28th and runs to 1pm Sunday August 30th at Houchen House Retreat & Conference Centre, Hamilton. You are warmly invited to this rich opportunity to reflect on and revitalise your leadership. This could be one of the best leadership investments you ever make. For further information see

Dr Rodger Spiller, Director of SBN member Money Matters, is an Authorised Financial Adviser. His Disclosure Statement is available on request, free of charge. Rodger is also a Facilitator in Preparation with the Center for Courage & Renewal.

If you’re not able to attend the weekend workshop that Rodger is holding, SBN’s Lead and Influence Sustainability Course is also taking place in January 2016 – see here for more details.