by Katarina Billing, MiL Institute

How do we develop managers that lead with the end in mind?

Lars Cederholm, MiL Institute at Global Forum Lars Cederholm, MiL Senior Partner, was also this year’s Dilworth Award recipient for ”Outstanding professional achievement in the field of Executive Education and Action Learning”.

This was one of the many challenging questions raised at the start of The 17th Global Forum on Action Learning in Yokohama. The theme of the year is: ”Global Leadership: Greater Understanding, Sharing and Solidarity”. Present in Yokohama were a team of representatives from MiL Institute, consisting of Katarina Billing, Jonas Janebrant and Lars Cederholm hosting a seminar on ”Action Reflection Learning and Leveraging the Space In-Between”.

One of many noteworthy contributors was General Electric’s Senior HRM Asia Pacific, Nina Nijs Dankfort, who shared GE’s way of working with Action Learning and Business Driven Leadership Development. For Nina Nijs Dankfort, one of the objectives of their development initiatives is for the leaders to realize that one of their tasks is to leave a real legacy behind. This, at a conference, taking place in a country where the Fukushima accident still has an immense impact on the nation and its people. Sustainability issues are really at the core in Japan, presently struggling with a shortage of energy of at least 30 % .

One of the most thought provoking moments of the conference, was Unilever’s Jacqueline Yew’s seminar on ”Common Dilemmas of Executive Development”, where for example the term VUCA-world was introduced. A Volatile world of Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. That is the environment where the leaders will have to be able to lead today in Asia and elsewhere. Looking at the first follower and not only at the leader was one of her recipes for leadership development.

It has been four days with lots of concern for our common future and for the great tasks that are in front of us which need to be led, and that there are no perfect solutions more like a lot of really demanding questions.

The Shunmyo Masuno, Zen Priest at the Kenjio Temple and a renowned Landscape architect really captivated it beautifully at the session in the lush Japanese Sankeien Garden: If we seek for perfection where will spirituality and humanity find its place?


So life is complex... but does it have to be so complicated?

"An ever-higher rate of complexity and diversity at an ever-increasing speed…"
These are common, and current descriptions, in management literature, recounting the challenges organizations face, not only today, but also what they have been dealing with for the last 30 years. Does that mean that the participants in the upcoming MEC 54 (MiL’s Executive Leadership Programme) are facing the same challenges as their predecessors, the first participants, in 1978?

Yes and no, some struggles might be timeless, but studies show that, in the last 55 years, there has been a six-fold increase in complexity. Fine, it might not surprise me that business complexity is six times higher today. The frustrating part is that the same study shows that the rate of complicatedness – i.e. the amount of procedures, vertical layers and decision approvals – has increased 35 times during the same period!

In an attempt to deal with the uncertainty of complexity, we add layer upon layer of standardized procedures and detailed regulations, making decision-making processes heavy, complicated and slow.

And not only that, on a more discouraging note, the standardizations, regulations and the detailed “what to do and what not to do”-lists are also a consequence of a growing public distrust of managers and professionals (for example doctors and bankers). The assumption being that these professionals neither has the will, nor the skill, to act in the best interest of their organizations, of their employees or of society.

Recipe for disaster - or at least - mediocracy

The consequences of these detailed lists or cookbook recipes for management are according to American psychologist Barry Schwartz that “the important nuances of context are squeezed out. Better to minimize the number of rules, give up trying to cover every particular circumstance, and instead do more training to encourage skill at practical reasoning and intuition.”  Such training and practical reasoning that can be found for example in our leadership programmes building on Action Reflection Learning ®.

Reginald Revans, developed Action Learning in the 1950s in order to help managers “develop the capacity to carry the burden of decision making”. When I talked to Lennart Rohlin, the founder and former MD of MiL Institute last week, Lennart said something similar about Action Reflection Learning ® and MiL’s leadership programmes:

” the purpose is for you as a manager to get your own insights and experiences by having the time and room for reflection, thereby creating something that is more founded in yourself, a personal leadership theory, your own understanding and approach – the opposite of a cookbook recipe. There is no need for those when the knowledge of how to act, of what to do, is grounded in you yourself.”

ARL promotes practically wise organizations and managers

I would add that the power of Action Reflection Learning is that it helps you make use of your experience, help you get access to your tacit knowledge and your assumptions, encourage you to critically examine what you know (as a person and as a company representative) and challenge you to become more aware of your, and your organization’s, values. All in order to support practically wise organizations and managers. To quote Schwartz again: Wisdom is not something theoretical but highly practical: it is to know the right thing to do at the specific moment in the particular circumstances and then to actually do it.

Hence, we find the Action Reflection Learning ® approach, all the more important today. To navigate and to act as a manager in an even more complex environment, avoiding tempting recipes, you must trust that no theory (nor recipe) works better than the one you yourself experience, create and reflect over.

That is what we are aiming for to happen in our leadership programs - promoting practically wise organizations and managers that are able to navigate the business context of today and tomorrow, to stand grounded in the ever more global, complex, diverse, fast moving and uncertain life of organizations today.

Read ”The Story of Action Reflection Learning” by Lennart Rohlin to know more about the conception, and future work fields, of Action Reflection Learning.

Johanna Steen, MiL Institute


In April, we got a request from an Indian psychologist, Ruchika Mehra Jain, working at IILM, a private business school in New Delhi, wanting to come to Sweden to learn about Action Reflection Learning ® and how MiL Institute works with leadership development. The same day that the decision was made to have Ruchika with us during one month of internship, we were contacted by Times of India, the worlds largest English spoken newspaper, wanting to do an article on Action Reflection Learning ® and the advantages of using the ARL approach in an Indian Business context. Coincidence? Serendipity?

What to know when working with leadership development in India

On the eve of her return to India, Ruchika held a seminar at the MiL offices in Malmö, on ”What to know when working with leadership development in India”.

It was a lovely and intimate seminar with a clear and very present flavor of India - “Satya Mave Jayte”- brought both by Ruchikas sharing of cultural aspects of doing business with India, as well as by the participants’ sharing of interactions with India as a country and with team members of Indian origin.

Indian food, Bollywood and Cricket

A part from the very practical advice on three things that would get any Indian to open up and talk – Indian food, Bollywood and Cricket – Ruchika imparted with many useful insights into the everyday of Indian business culture. The three most salient features being:

    1. Business networking is crucial. You need personal friends in India, someone to introduce you to those that you want to meet and do business with.


    1. You need to know the organizational structure and the matrix in order to understand who is calling the shots.


    1. There is a widespread cultural understanding that you have to give first in order to get. Presents, hospitality – to show up at the airport, to offer food and share a meal together while inquiring about your family is a way for Indians to understand who you are and what values you stand for.

6 challenges when working with leadership development in India

During the seminar, Ruchika left us to reflect upon a number of stories illustrating possible challenges for those working with leadership development in India, some of which are listed below.

Challenge 1: Respect Thy Elder

As children we are taught not to argue, to respect our elders, to be obedient and to curb our feelings etc. We are trained not to voice our inner most feeling to our elders. They are the higher authority and you just have to follow what is being said to you on most occasions. Even though there would be a segment of the society, which might be exempt from this trend, that segment would be quite minuscule. This is socialized deep within the Indian society and we carry this to work. How we interact with our colleagues, our seniors and their seniors can be quite inhibiting in what we say or express in different situations or in difficult situations.

Challenge 2: If you fail, there are at least 10 people that can replace you

The life of a manager in India is quite challenging. Many experience a constant performance pressure.  There is no room for mistakes nor for ineffectiveness. There is a continuous threat of losing your job, as there are always 10 people who are standing outside the door ready to take your job. Under such a pressurizing situation, how does one maintain cool and give an effective performance?

Challenge 3: The toll on a society of 120 million citizens

We are 120 million citizens in India; there is a poor infrastructure, social security and health coverage. Every Indian works hard and wants to save up for rainy days. Having to keep a job becomes a necessity, more than a matter of choice. This may cause people to compromise their desires, likes and wishes. How to develop such people into professionals who would be enterprising, growing and leader-like…?

Challenge 4: Work life balance in an Indian context

“Work life balance” is a great concept and there is much training conducted on it in many Indian organizations, but the systems and the processes of the organizations do not support this. Being a service providing country, we have to be one to act as prompt as possible or else someone else will take the lead…
Many managers are taking their work stress home and this disturbs the family life… How do you see this as a leadership challenge for the future leaders of this country?

Challenge 5: Nepotism

India can be counted as a country producing many entrepreneurs… These have grown in magnitude with the growing economy.  These enterprises are individual driven organizations. All the decisions regarding growth, strategy and business developments are to be answered by the founder. Some of the businesses have also converted into family owned legacies. There is a high degree of nepotism prevalent in such enterprises. Many of such enterprises suffer as they lack the focus on developing leadership within the organization.

Challenge 6: High turnover and a reluctance to invest in talent

The Indian job market is quite competitive and offers a lot of opportunity but only to a few. One of the current challenges of the Indian market is to retain the talent within the organization. The average tenure of an employee at the organization is no more than 2-3 years. This tends to inhibit the organizations to invest and develop their talent with the growing threat of competition taking it away.

Action Reflection Learning and Indian Leadership Challenges

During her internship at MiL Institute, Ruchika met and sat down with many of MiL Institute's experts on Action Reflection Learning in order to understand our learning philosophy, how we work with leadership and business development and how it would play out in an Indian context. It was a lengthy process that brought many answers as well as new questions. Once the last months impressions and conversations are duly digested we look forward to learning more from Ruchika on how she, with her background and experience, would think of using ARL in her work. There is no doubt however that Action Reflection Learning has a lot to offer in the Indian context.

We want to thank Ruchika for a wonderful seminar and for coming to work with us this spring, with her insightful questions helping us understand more about the challenges and opportunities of an Action Reflection Learning approach in her home country.

Keep your eyes open for more news about Action Reflection Learning in India.

Johanna Steen, MiL Institute


Women Leaders from Sweden and the United Arab Emirates

May 20th -23rd 2012 marked the start of Women Leadership Exchange Program – an international leadership program for women managers.

During four days of beautiful spring weather, 19 women managers from Sweden and from the United Arab Emirates, gathered in Klippan, Sweden, for the first of two modules.

In January of 2013, the green of the Swedish spring will give way for the wast sand dunes of Dubai, location of the second module in the program.

Program direction. From the left: Johanna Steen (MiL Institute), Maria Delmar (MiL Institute) and Maja Rottbøll (W4SG)

This pilot project, focusing on empowering women leaders from Sweden and the United Arab Emirates to build a sustainable leadership practice, is the first ever co-operation between MiL Institute, Women for Sustainable Growth (W4SG) and Dubai Women Establishment (DWE).

Leadership Development for Women Leaders

In its structure this leadership development program is not that different from the usual leadership programs at MiL Institute.

What sets it apart is the international target group and the joint ethos and focus of the three organizing institutions on promoting women leaders to be instigators of sustainable development. Building change from the inside out.

A Sustainable Leadership Practice

During a period of 8 months the participants will work on establishing a Sustainable Leadership Practice.

On a personal level this means exploring one’s the inner purpose, gaining self- knowledge, brokering the much sought after balance in life and gaining a greater understanding of one’s individual challenges and strenghts as a leader. In many ways this entails coming to terms with the ideal image one might have of what a good leader does, in favour of building on the resourses and capablities one has as part of one’s particular personal and organizational context.

Meet the present without compromising the future

On an organizational level, a sustainable leadership practice, means to explore and develop ways of furthering participation and innovation, to lead change,while still maintaining relationships and securing a communication and a participation that don’t crumble under the pressure to achieve results. To find a way of leading that allows for the organization to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.

One key aspect of maintaining a sustainable leadership practice is to be part of a community and a network of peers that challenge and support you, having places, persons and relationships that can serve as resources and inspiration in your work. Therefore this holds a special focus in the Women Leadership Exchange Program, and is achieved through the network of women leaders participating as well as by the know-how and the communities of the organizing institutions.

Delegation meeting Carina Tempel, Executive Director, Fosie District Council, Malmö City.
From the left: Maryam Majid Bin Theneya, Noaf Tahlak, Carina Tempel, Hessa Tahlak, Dr. Aisha Bu Smait, Sultana Saif

Meeting Women Managers in Leading Positions

In the spirit of building a network of women leaders, the participants also met with women managers in leading positions within different organizations such as Malmö Stad, Tetra Pak, E.ON Nordic and Lund University.

What makes a successful pilot project?

The concept of "pilot projects" indicates a test run, a trial, with the clear and expressed purpose of learning for future projects. It is a concept that I appreciate greatly. Maybe more projects should be pilots or at least embrace the "learning" core of the pilot in order to keep the co-creative, experimental and learning aspects of leadership development alive.
Something we learnt immediately, through the great response evoked in both regions when we announced the Women Leadership Exchange Program to the world, was that it is an important and sought after initiative.

As we went public with our search for 12 managers based in Sweden and 12 managers based in the UAE, within the hour, we had people expressing their eagerness to participate.

In the end we ended up with 7 managers from Sweden and 12 from the UAE. While the short notice - two months before the start of the program -  drew down the number of participants from Sweden (full calendars and budget issues), the opposite was true for the Emirati participants, this even though the recruitment process in Dubai did not start until the beginning of May.

Program Direction: Erin Frazier (W4SG)

Half time lessons of a successful start

Regardless of whether it pertains to pilot projects or other endeavors, the crucial aspect of learning lies in the act to stop and reflect on the experience, which sometimes means to learn some rather hard lessons from mistakes and failures.

The issue of there being a minority of Swedish managers might not have been ideal but it was a great cause for reflection. What happens when you are in minority and majority and what does it do to you? The parallels to being a woman in leading position in a male dominated organization was not that far away. Also, the differences between the regions in regards to planning practices and the concept of time, also became something to talk about and learn from.





What happens when you leave your safe haven

Another great opportunity for learning presented itself when the participants, due to company visits early in the morning of May 23rd, left the secure and peaceful haven of Borgen at MiLgårdarna for the busy city life of Malmö. The chock and the contrast left many of us overwhelmed and a little disoriented, the bus ride from Klippan to Malmö, proving not to be enough time to prepare for the onslaught of impressions, sounds and people, not enough time to make sense of the powerful experience of sharing and opening up during the time spent in Klippan.

From that, there are two lessons to learn – be aware of what happens when you change location in the middle of a module (it might be good to consider staying at the first location) and make sure to continue making mistakes to learn from.

The setting of the program should not be so perfectly constructed that it becomes a parallel universe, completely foreign to, and cut off from,  the reality of life and the real life issues and challenges. By that I mean that having a safe haven can be important in order to be able to experiment and learn. Too far off from everyday conditions and circumstances may however make the transition and the treashold for turning insights (in the program) into action (back home) too steep.

How to turn new found insights into sustainable action

To me, this ”mistake" in design, though painful at the time, turned out to be one of the most important and real moments in the program with an obvious parallel to what happens to many participants when they return home from a similar experience and meet the reality of life again. Experiencing the disorientation of coming to Malmö, raised the questions of:

- How to make sense of what you have been through?

- How to hold on to new found insights in the busy life of everyday work and how to turn insights into changed behavior?

- How to communicate what you've learnt to those in your surroundings?

I think it proved to be one of the most important insights- the need to hold on when returning home, to be aware of the thin skin and the sensibility that comes from the experience.

The second, most important lesson for me that I hope to integrate in the next module, is therefore to make sure there is room for mistakes and unplanned events to influence the program and to have ample room and space to reflect on those occurences with the participants, so we can learn from them.

Next time in Dubai

Looking ahead, if the first module mostly focused on how to lead yourself, the second module in January 2013 will to a greater extent focus on how to lead others, to lead change and how to promote the development of sustainable communities of practice.

I look forward to new insights and lessons from this pilot project and I invite those of you that are curious to know more about the Women Leadership Exchange Program initiative, or have other questions or thoughts to share, to contact me.

Johanna Steen, MiL Institute


By Katarina Billing, MiL Institute

Why Reflection is Needed So Badly and Why it is So Scarce in Supply

[caption id="attachment_392" align="alignright" width="300"] Sculpture of Confucius by Zhang Huan at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai. In the “Q Confucius”-exhibition the artist raised questions like “What does it mean to live in a Confucian way today?”. One of Confucius sayings was for example: “A good horse is praised not for its strength but for its virtue.”

The other day I was talking to the regional Asia-Pacific-HR- Manager of a major global company here in Shanghai. The picture he painted of the state of the organization was a grim one with a large management team meeting very seldom, with little trust in the team and no chance of support and empowerment and at the same time huge business challenges, barrier breaking goals and KPI:s in focus. A picture of an organization with high retention and a sense of frustration and severe stress among the employees, feelings of solitude, absent management and lack of talents wanting to take on larger responsibilities further down in the organisation. Business results: inadequate quality, loss of speed and innovative new business practices and solutions in short supply. In the long run, loss of direction, competitiveness and money.

—We really believe in reflection, but to tell you the truth I have very little time and resources ever working with it or promoting it, the HR manager confessed .

We all keep running
This scenario is by no means exclusive neither for this company, for this industry, for China nor for any other part of the world. I hear it over and over again, from Danish, American, Swedish, French, Swiss, Chinese companies etc. And in all kinds of segments: social media, manufacturing, retail, distribution, banking, telecom etc. The tale of the short-term focus, business as usual, action oriented, result- and KPI-driven approach. Most of us in business know the drill. We are awarded for being complacent and playing by the rules. Although we are convinced of the power of trust building, involvement, humanistic values and reflection as means to increase listening, learning and future creative solutions. We tend to go on running.

A quest for resilience
I think it is time to start focusing more on resilience. It refers to the idea of an individual's tendency to cope with stress and adversity. Many of the employees in the organisations I meet are stressed and one way of coping with it is shutting off and finding individual motivation when few alternatives exist due to lack of value based leadership, engaging visions and sound values being lived (and not only stated) in their respective companies on a day-to-day basis. Adding to that the multitude of information, the constant expectation and need to be “logged on” at all times and the matrix organisations where a confusion of loyalty often pervades leaves the concept of resilience and people practising it quite abandoned.

How to become resilient?
Some teams and organisations have the energy and faith though. I worked with a large Chinese organization some time ago. Their management school wanted to learn more about Action Reflection Learning, ARL ®, i.e. the MiL Institute learning philosophy and how to apply it in their business.

Concepts in ARL® like Presence (shutting out all irrelevant stimuli and focusing on the here and now), Connection (building trust and respect between us), Holistic involvement (seeing the team participants as persons not as roles, further not as a means but as ends in itself), Guided reflection (stopping to think, feel and share in order to learn for continuous improvement and increased life meaning) and Feedback (supporting the reflection as a means to create fresh air and breathing within a system) suddenly came alive and started to spin its threads tightening the team together. The team did not at any time leave their task but instead worked consistently with their goals and missions through ARL®.

This was a rewarding and energizing experience and the team is now busy living the ARL® philosophy in their development efforts within their organization but also in their own team life on a daily basis.
—We are now co-creating more. I have learnt to listen better and to increase my patience. And my co-workers show higher degrees of confidence, involvement and trust, the manager testifies happily.

This example shows some of the ways to build resilience, all of them thoroughly supported in psychological research. The ARL® philosophy supplies the organisation with a method and tools to make it happen.

Why do we resist practising reflection and building resilience?
Then why is it so difficult to “Just do it”? Two of the reasons are highlighted in the research on the negative social effects of excessive use of mobile phones that gets high attention in the media at the moment.

First of all, we are all psychological animals in need of social gratification, recognition and appreciation. Many of these needs are today satisfied through constant online access to e-mail, Facebook and other social network channels. Shutting them off (even for a short while) is perceived as a loss for the individual. It is consequently hard for an employer (or any other outside stimuli the report shows) to compete with these. Secondly this behaviour also fosters a lack of impulse control, i.e. we are used to getting what we want instantly, e.g. contact with our friends, a pair of new shoes through online shopping etc.

How can a manager “sell” reflection?
The list of explanations could become much longer. But if we look at only these two factors it is not hard to see why an employee from a work environment with low support, energy and involvement (like the one mentioned first in this text) could have some resistance to entering into a development process of any kind, say for instance of team development through ARL ®, working with connection and reflection. This need is already taken care of somewhere else and the organisation already has showed low credibility here.

As for the managers — “selling it” needs commitment and trust, something that is not present at the first place. Secondly, this development effort will reduce the speed not only of the work being done, since reflection takes some time at first (but is shown to improve results and speed long term) but also will be felt quite vividly in the room as a slow way of working (requiring attentive listening for example). Research has shown that stressed people are like drug addicts (Drugs, Stress Cause Similar Brain Changes – Malenka, R, Neuron, Feb 2003). Speed is like cocaine to them. If you take away speed you need to be able to sustain the individual with something else. To achieve this, MiL Institute often uses powerful tools coming close by tapping on emotions and relationships ensuring the involvement of each individual. But since we are also talking about a change process, altering people’s behaviour and ultimately the team/organisational culture, it also requires some time. Because as the dictionary Wikipedia accurately states:
“Resilience is most commonly understood as a process, and not a trait of an individual”.

It is something we do together and in a reflected process over time. Time, neither of us has, right?

Reflection is indeed an endangered species in today’s business world. And it is certainly initially a slow and time-consuming companion. But hey, do you know of any other salvation? I am all ears.
Katarina Billing, MiL Institute
Certified psychologist, journalist, MiL Senior Partner and co-author to several books, among others: Earning while learning in global leadership. Heads the MiL research foundation and has the last four years been the programme director for the MiL programme for experienced managers. Is passionate about art and personal leadership. Responsible MiL China.
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