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Leadership Response - Military and Business

Approaches to leadership learning: Emory Executive Education's Ken Keen in conversation with IEDP



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Prior to becoming the Associate Dean for Leadership Development at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Ken Keen had a distinguished 40-year career in the US Army, culminating as a Lieutenant General in charge of the Joint Task Force in Haiti after its devastating earthquake in 2010. His experience from his military service around the world, and latterly in a leading global business school, gives a unique vantage point to compare the leadership training approaches both in the military and commercial sectors.

“The military has always invested a great deal of resources in developing leaders” Keen notes. “Throughout a military career, you are always going back to school for both technical expertise and leadership training; businesses struggle with how much they can invest in both time and money, but principally time, in leadership training.” The flip side of this is that Keen sees that “the military can learn a huge amount from business about the effectiveness versus efficiency ratio.” While acknowledging that efficiency is less paramount than effectiveness in military operations; the key thing is to win, not to have a profit; he sees that there is much the military could do to tighten its belt while remaining highly effective.

Keen brings this merging of the best from both worlds to – Emory Executive Education’s Managerial Leadership Program (MLP). MLP focuses on participants achieving a better understanding of their leadership strengths and weaknesses, through Birkman Personality Assessments and 360˚ appraisals, and unpacking these in one-to-one coaching sessions during the program. As Keen explains this combination of assessment and coaching enables participants to learn about themselves and understand the feedback quickly.

What sets the program apart from many such top-level leadership programs is the experiential ‘leadership response course’ that is drawn from the long-standing equivalent used in the US Army, Leaders’ Reaction Course. The LRC in both pure military and Emory Exec Ed’s usage, takes five to eight groups of people and runs six back-to-back problem-solving events over the course of a day. Each event requires the team leader to receive a task, brief their team, develop a plan and then execute it, within a 30-minute period. At the end of the 30 minutes there is a quick, ten-minute debrief or ‘after action review’ where the team analyses what they did well and what they did less well, and what they can do next time to improve.

The team leader role is rotated through the group with each new event, so ideally each participant has the leadership role once through the day. The tasks for the event can vary from classic equipment-based ones, which might be using planks to enable the whole team’s passage across a ‘minefield’ to tasks involving going outside the group to gather information. As Keen describes it, the tasks are formulated so that their focus is on leadership rather than team-building.

“In the initial event, typically we see a 70-80% failure rate, as the day progresses and the team sees that it needs to work differently to achieve the tasks – which could be less planning and quicker to execution, or maybe better delegation of tasks within each event – the leaders begin to see how they can run the group more effectively…… but also as the leadership role rotates, the other participants begin to see how they can be better followers too.” Keen sees that the ability to follow is part-and-parcel of enabling effective teams, and that the better people understand themselves the better they can be as followers.

Once all six tasks have been completed the program reconvenes for an end-of-day, longer reflection on what has been experienced and what insights that can be drawn from it. This leads to rich conversations that participants learn from in an enduring way, being able to relate much more closely with the issues having experienced them themselves and sharing the challenges and solutions that they have encountered through the LRC.

This group discussion is then concluded with more one-on-one coaching where individual emotions and personal development issues can be more granularly explored.

While commercial organizations still struggle to carve out time to develop leadership capacity amongst their managers, this kind of mixture of personal awareness growing and team leading experience under controlled conditions is, Keen believes, a powerful way to fast-track managerial leadership development, having seen it work impactfully in both military and commercial organizations.


Clients return to Emory Executive Education time and again to continue our strategic partnership, requesting repeat programs, new initiatives, and other forms of continued engagement.



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