It's late on a Friday afternoon in San Antonio, Texas, and 35 students — midlevel executives from banks, hospitals, the military — are at their final class for a course called "Organizations in Transition." A few students have been assigned to lead a discussion based on both "Ishmael" (Bantam Books, 1992), a novel by Daniel Quinn about the encounters between a zoo gorilla and his human visitor, and "Tuesdays with Morrie" (Doubleday, 1997), Mitch Albom's best-selling account of the conversations that he had with his dying mentor. The group convenes a discussion about the novel and — lo and behold — a talking gorilla appears. The visitor is remarkably articulate, especially for a gorilla. He challenges the students to think about their work, about the importance of their families, and about the way that they treat the planet.
By the time these executives get to "Tuesdays with Morrie," any inhibitions that may have existed in the beginning are long gone. One at a time, students silence the room (except for a few sniffling noses) with stories about personal challenges. This is not where the class expected its discussions to lead. "These are the moments when strategic change becomes a possibility," says Robert H. Lengel, 53, associate dean for executive education at the University of Texas at San Antonio's College of Business — and one of the brains behind the school's very unconventional executive MBA program.
While the 21-month, $28,000 program offers a healthy dose of accounting, finance, marketing, and other traditional subjects, its curriculum does not revolve around "a petty focus on efficiency," says Lengel. Instead, this MBA program, called "The Learning Journey," focuses on helping executives understand what it means to be a leader in today's fast-moving, fast-changing, utterly confusing business environment. "We integrate two bottom lines — profit and mortality," Lengel says bluntly.
Forget just running operations, he argues. Real leaders transform organizations — and the people in them. Forget a spreadsheetlike focus on short-term financials. Real leaders make emotional connections. And forget the corner office. Real leaders get things done on the "front porch" — in places, according to the curriculum guide, that enable us "to reflect upon what we are doing and to build a sense of community that supports us socially and emotionally in the face of unprecedented change."
That's why, instead of following a traditional lecture format, the program creates its own "front porch" times — designated periods of conversation and reflection. Along with joining study teams (which focus only on content), students are assigned to reflection teams, which let them explore the personal meaning of their work and to learn from one another. Put simply: This is not your father's model of leadership.
The Learning Journey draws from a wide range of disciplines to help executives challenge their assumptions about leadership. Thus, to prove that subtle forces can have huge results, a course on coping with change features a lesson in Aikido (the martial art of using nonresistance to get an opponent's energy to work for you). And on one occasion, the pianist Michael Jones came to class to demonstrate how music can foster other varieties of creativity. "The winning organizations of the future will be the ones whose leaders can react easily to the world around them," Jones says.
There's no question that the program reshapes many students' worldviews. Brian Robey, 37, a manager in the bioengineering department at the Southwest Research Institute, in San Antonio, says that he enrolled in the program for more than just a lesson on how to create profits or how to understand his clients' needs: "I came here for personal growth and leadership development." Robey, who is usually quick to make a joke, revealed a more serious, vulnerable side when, during the discussion of "Tuesdays with Morrie," he shared his sadness about the recent death of his own mentor.
For Charles Syms, 42, a class of 1999 alumnus, the program made him decide to get off the fast track. An otologist and neurotologist, Syms had been on his way to becoming a department chairman at the Wilford Hall U.S. Air Force Medical Center, in San Antonio. But the program helped him realize that the structure of the military didn't allow for a team-based approach to work. Now he's a member of a three-person partnership in which everyone on staff contributes to business decisions. "I don't let anyone, including myself, get comfortable with paternalism in management," he says.
Indeed, several other students have given up promotions and prestige to become team leaders, rather than individual stars. Nearly 60% of the students from the inaugural class changed jobs during or after the program. "The Information Age is about knowledge creation," says Lengel. "It's not about having the answers; it's about being open enough with yourself to keep asking questions."
Contact Robert H. Lengel by email (email@example.com), or learn more about the executive MBA program on the Web (http://cobweb.utsa.edu/cpe/emb).
Sidebar: Leadership 101
Robert H. Lengel, associate dean of the College of Business at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is also coauthor of "Fusion Leadership: Unlocking the Subtle Forces That Change People and Organizations" (Berrett-Koehler, 1998). Lengel believes that leadership is a journey. Here, he recommends some ways to begin that journey.
But don't read only books about business. Read about art, music, and science to learn new ways of doing things. "Consider the art of unrelated inquiry," Lengel tells his students. "Practice not being an expert."
Images can help you sort through dilemmas by depicting what words cannot convey. It's easier, says Lengel, to critique an image than it is to critique words: "Think of your learning journey as a trip to the gym, and train the muscles of your brain."
Talk to people at different levels, in different divisions, from different companies. "Conversation is a simple tool that allows people to self-organize and to generate complexity," Lengel says. "It allows people to reinvent themselves."
Start talking to yourself.
Keeping a journal, says Lengel, helps you pinpoint assumptions that may hold you back: "Create front porches — places where people can slow down and reflect on what's happening around them."
Performing a skit or a miniplay is a great way to be honest about what's happening and about how people are behaving. "Revel in the fallacy of logic; expose the assumptions that limit you," Lengel urges. "Once you've laughed at one another, it's easier to change."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.