This is the Morlaix staircase, an object beautifully displayed in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries of the V&A. It is over 11 metres tall and comes from a house in the town of Morlaix, in Brittany, France.

The question it poses for me is: “When did it stop being a staircase and become a museum object?”


In one sense, it has never stopped being a staircase, but it has crossed a line into being something other, but where is that line? And when did it cross it from being a functioning object to a display object?

There are so many points of departure – was it when it was first taken out of the house for which it was built? Or when it was purchased by Mr J. H. Fitzhenry, Esq. who subsequently gave it to the V&A in 1909?  Or on its delivery by horse and cart to the V&A? Or when it was registered officially by the Museum’s Registrar…

given a catalogue number… taken into the conservation studios for repair, conservation and preparation… handed over to the museum technicians to be mounted in a gallery or when it was first viewed by a visitor in situ, just as I did some 35 years ago?

The answer will be different for different people, dependent upon their role, their interest, their investment in the object. And generally it will be after the event and I suggest this is the same for developing leaders. So when does someone become a leader?

Before getting to grips with that question, an even trickier one presents itself – what do we mean by the title ‘leader’?

Joseph Rost’s review of the leadership studies literature (2000) found 221 specific definitions. Search on google for ‘What is a leader?’ and you’ll be presented with 493,000,000 answers. Pose the same question on Amazon and you’ll be given 110,309 suggested books.

There is clearly no one single definition, and like any other field of thinking, it is subject to fashion.

For any individual, their own understanding will be influenced by their culture, language, experience, education, gender and spiritual background – as well as those of their context made up of the people, family, organisations, governments around them.

Strikingly, ‘Leader’ is one of the least represented job titles at senior levels. There are plenty of Managers, Directors, Chief officers, Presidents and any number of senior, vice and deputy variants. But very few Leaders.

If we don’t get it as a job title, at what point does an individual stop merely performing their function and become a leader? Like the Morlaix staircase, when does one cross that line?

As someone who leads (sic) a Leadership Development programme, the question this raises is ‘How does one develop leaders, when the definitions and the lines are so unclear?’

I would like to suggest three steps.

  • Make More Mistakes
  • Do More Differently
  • Reflect Later
Make More Mistakes

Chris Argyris (1991) suggests that an organisation’s smartest people find it hardest to learn because the social, professional and psychological pressures of being ‘the expert’ means they don’t allow themselves to be open to critique and hence new learning. Learning is deeply enhanced by mistakes. Trying things out, getting them wrong, trying again – rapid prototyping is a key element in innovation design. As Samuel Beckett said, ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better’. To enhance the learning of new knowledge, skills and capabilities, to broaden awareness and perspectives (a mind-set vital for the leaders of experts), one needs to experiment.  An experiment, to quote Steve Chapman (2015), is an activity ‘you don’t know whether will work or not’.

Do More, Differently

There is much research on the importance of acting into leadership or acting as a leader – as can be found in Amy Cuddy’s popular Ted Talk (October 2012) and Herminia Ibarra’s ‘Act like a Leader. Think like a Leader’ (2015). The premise is that the way we act drives the way we think.  To change, to be different, prospective leaders need to do more, gain new and different experience, try new experiments.

With the current popularity of the 70 (Acting) – 20 (Coaching) – 10 (Training) model, the 70% is often forgotten as emphasis is put on the 10% training programme. The 70% is where work gets done, where lines get crossed.  Therefore most learning will happen if learners do more, do it differently (i.e. experiment) and make more mistakes in that 70%.

Reflect… Later

The act of reflection is the key to learning (see Kolb, 1984) and has been part of the academic process for centuries. One studies the thinking of the past, in order to critique it and hopefully synthesize some new meaning. Phronesis, practical learning derived from experience, is imbued with reflection but in order for the learning to be new it must be based upon new and different knowledge and experiences.  Smart people can find this harder as their expertise is often based upon well-established theories in practice.  Reflection can easily become self-fulfilling prophesy, hence effective practical learning requires that reflection takes place later, once new and different activity has taken place.

In light of these three steps, what should a leader of a leadership development programme do?

Create a Containing Social Environment

Making mistakes can be scary. It goes against many organisational cultures and undermines the very skills and knowledge that has brought the individual learners to a position where they are now considering their leadership capability. It is therefore incumbent on the programme leader to create an environment where one can be stretched but at the same time held.  Barry Mason (1993) calls this Safe Uncertainty, emphasising the importance of openness and retaining an awareness of the very provisional nature of human ideas, which are socially constructed rather than containing absolute ‘truths’. The programme leader needs therefore to hold their own expertise lightly, respecting the expertise in the room and holding that respect equally for each of the learners.  This in itself acts into a generative leadership role and models the behaviour David Putnam (speech at BAFTA, 2016) sees as a key leadership competence – the ability to take a meta, or umbrella, view of the different forms of expertise that one seeks to lead.

Bring the new

As well as creating the containing environment for experimentation, the programme leader must bring new and different experiences. This is not just in terms of activity but also through a more diverse peer network and especially new practitioners, professionals who are doing rather than just thinking or knowing. This is about curating and convening a development experience rather than lecturing and teaching (see Power, 2014).

Mediate with the 70%

Learners will learn through action, but one or two day workshops, and even week long courses, can at best only work as an analogue to the day to day, as an arena to explore and be stretched.  Work is where the learning is applied, tried, got wrong, tried again.  Workshops are for implications.  Work for applications. It easy for this ‘bridging’ to be overlooked.  The term ‘developmental relationships’, the ’20’ of the 70-20-10 model, is apt to be nebulous, unquantifiable and therefore easily ignored. The bridge between the workshop and the work must be engaged with actively.

Hence, I strongly recommend action learning as a positive, effective and resource efficient learning activity. It focuses on the work, it demands commitment to action and, through the development of a stronger peer bonds from the programme cohort, encourages learning from and, hence, appreciation of, different perspectives. I would rather someone miss a workshop than an action learning session.


In Conclusion

This is a call to action, a call to active learning and acting into leadership. It is a call to stretch the learner, intellectually and emotionally, to build up stronger and more resilient practical creative muscles. The traditional model of learning and development is based upon a gap analysis and the metaphor is one of a journey – ‘You are here.  Do this course and you will be there’.

However, when you cannot define where the line is, when it is impossible to pinpoint the destination, you must go beyond the idea of a pre-known programme of development. Learners are most likely to realise that they are leading when they reflect upon their learning after the event. Leadership development should stretch those who would be leaders beyond the usual and the traditional.

Rather than being forced up the foothills, they should be taken to the highest point, given a parachute and encouraged to float down to a new, but higher, position than where they started.

In the end, get on and do it.

Do it more, do it different.

Make mistakes.

Look down and see where you have landed.

Did anyone think a lot about the definition of the museum object when installing the Morlaix staircase?

I doubt it.

People look at it now and just think what an amazing thing to have in a museum.



Argyris, Chris (1991) Teaching Smart People How to Learn Harvard Business Review

Chapman, Steve (2015) Can Scorpions Smoke?

Cuddy, Amy (2012) Your body language shapes who you are TED Talk

Ibarra, Herminia (2015) Act like a Leader, Think like a Leader Harvard Business Review Press

Kolb. D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

Mason, Barry (1993) Towards Positions of Safe Uncertainty Institute of Family Therapy, London

Power, Kevin (2014) in The Change Doctors Eds King, K & Higgins, J.  Libri Publishing Ltd

Rost, Joseph C.  (2000) Leadership for the Twenty-First Century Prager Publishers