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The Sound of Three Hands Clapping

Here’s the deal. Make your way to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, by Tuesday at 2.15 p.m. By Friday, in a nearby village, you must turn two dilapidated buildings into teachers’ housing and build a new community resource centre. The physical materials will be provided, but the labor force will consist entirely of local, volunteer labour. You don’t speak the language. You will work in a team from five other countries made up of peers whom you’ve never met. And as a high-potential executive with Motorola, you’re not accustomed to failing.

Here’s the deal. Make your way to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, by Tuesday at 2.15 p.m. By Friday, in a nearby village, you must turn two dilapidated buildings into teachers’ housing and build a new community resource centre. The physical materials will be provided, but the labor force will consist entirely of local, volunteer labour. You don’t speak the language. You will work in a team from five other countries made up of peers whom you’ve never met. And as a high-potential executive with Motorola, you’re not accustomed to failing.

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No, this isn’t some new manipulative reality TV show. It is the new face of leadership training.

It used to be that, for a successful business career, you needed formal training: lots of the so-called hard stuff — corporate finance, corporate law, engineering, and sales — along with a smattering of the so-called soft stuff — organizational behavior and marketing. But multicultural workforces, operating in a world where global politics and technology regularly turn markets upside down, demand different leadership skills. Now.

As the ever-changing economy makes ever-greater demands on personal talents like communication, collaboration, and improvization, it’s increasingly clear to many companies that classroom learning doesn’t teach those things. Theory is useless; real learning only happens through experience. Role playing is belittled by senior executives, and the rope bridge projects of old have all been mastered — and then forgotten — on the way to an MBA. “Most business schools tend to be more controlled, mechanistic and have their own orthodoxies,” explains Motorola’s Vanessa Loughlin. “I wanted something more complex and more experiential.”

The Malawi project derived from a collaboration between Motorola and a remarkable UK company called Three Hands. Founded by Simon Hamilton, the three hands of the name are business, communities, and people. Simon’s experience as an accountant and volunteering for a leading disability charity helped him realize the importance of bringing businesses and charities together — for training. “If companies are doing personal development and leadership anyway, why not get them to do something that benefits the community at the same time?” Simon says. “If you find the right community vehicle and facilitators and trainers, you can provide all the training and development the team wants — but you also do something that matters and leave behind something that made a difference, anywhere in the world.”

It’s a radical idea that struck a chord with leaders at Motorola, leaders who knew they needed to stretch their high fliers — but didn’t know how. “We thought that our managers lacked what we call edge: the ability to take risks, move outside their comfort zone, make decisions, and make them stick,” Loughlin says. “We were looking for something that would involve both individual and collective challenges, that would shift their assumptions about themselves and how they work.”

That’s exactly what they got. “The whole environment put a lot of stress on us. Emotions were floating around, the work was hard, the weather was hot, and having such a goal with so little time caused some very interesting changes in the behaviors of all participants,” Loughlin continues. “But in Motorola, we’re always under pressure, so it was a great learning experience to see just how people can change.”

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Returning to the corporate fold, the Motorola executives have been eloquent and thoughtful when considering its impact on their work and their lives. “It forced all of us to really leave our world of known paradigms and get back to the basics,” Loughlin says. “There was no way of hiding behind computer screens, meetings, conference calls, fancy presentations. I’ve learned to give more edge to my daily execution, to use resources better, lead when leadership is required, listen when listening is required, and to follow through on things one is passionate about — irrespective of obstacles.”

Three Hands is a business teaching business how to do business. That makes it very different from academic institutions. And because the projects it designs and manages are so complex and so sensitive, it has to execute flawlessly. It is a classic entrepreneurial organization — trying to teach the attitudes and practice of entrepreneurship to large corporations that struggle to emulate the vigor, dynamic, and purpose of their smaller counterparts.

What fascinates me about Three Hands is what it reveals about a real crisis in leadership thinking. The Apprentice and — dare I say it — our own government suggest that the command-and-control model of centralized leadership is still with us. But that model is anachronistic and doesn’t work anymore, as Loughlin observes. “When you had a static social environment, which we had until the tech revolution, then logical, mechanistic ways of thinking worked well,” she says. “You’re moving pieces within a static environment. But when you reverse that — working in a social environment that changes all the time — you can be in charge, but you can’t be in control.”

The fact that companies like Motorola, Pfizer, and Royal Bank of Scotland are prepared to go to such lengths to teach such lessons is just one indicator of how urgent the search for new mental models of business leadership really is.

The Malawi project didn’t succeed because a superhero arrived on the scene and figured it all out. It succeeded because the participants were willing to listen — and to change. “One sales director — well, let’s just say he used to have a very in-your-face style,” Loughlin says. “His business strategy was all about numbers. Now, he really understands how the management of people determines the outcome of the business and the task. He approaches strategic initiatives differently.”

The project also succeeded because there was a sufficiently strong sense of common purpose to persuade everyone to persevere. With a strong enough sense of purpose, politics, hierarchy, and all manner of cultural differences are swept aside. It’s a lesson any company, large or small, can learn from.

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People aren’t motivated by money — they’re motivated by a sense of purpose larger than themselves. When they have that, they can — and will — astound you. And themselves.

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