Red Pike looms almost 2,500 feet (more than 750 metres) above the village of Buttermere in Cumbria’s Lake District, some 263 miles (423 kilometres) north of Oxford. The trek from lake level to peak is steep, but proved relatively easy walking for the most part thanks to a well-defined path that weaves its way through forest until trees give way to shrubs and a daunting mountain vista. According to my map, a small, natural mountain lake, or tarn, lay somewhere ahead in the undulating landscape.
When I reached Bleaberry Tarn, I took a moment to catch my breath by the water’s edge and size up Red Pike. I eyed the gouge that climbs the mountainside then followed it along the ridge until I spotted some other walkers scrambling up the slippery, red scree to the peak.
That’s when the doubt set in. Doubt and uncertainty.
Doubt and uncertainty - my travel companions
I had arrived in the Lake District fresh from Oxford and a professional development experience like no other – the Saïd Business School’s Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme (OSLP). Over six exhausting but exhilarating days (and nights) I stepped into uncertainty, navigated the uncharted, and embraced the power of doubt alongside fellow participants, faculty, and industry experts such as Margaret Heffernan. In leadership (as in life) doubt and uncertainty is an all too frequent companion traveller. But, as Heffernan had told us the week before, ‘the underbelly of uncertainty is opportunity’.
I reflected on doubt and uncertainty and their potential upside as I set off for the peak. I had reflected much since leaving Oxford – about how my organisation (a university in Australia) handles ambiguity and risk, about my own leadership challenges, and about how I might distil the very many learnings from the week before into my leadership practice going forward.
Walking is the perfect activity for reflection and Heffernan was top of mind (I had just finished her terrific book Wilful Blindness). She was one of the illuminating experts I’d had the privilege of learning from the previous week and a point she’d made suddenly came back to me – preparedness is more helpful than planning in moments of uncertainty. As I quickly ran through my mental check list much of the doubt evaporated – I was as physically, mentally, and practically prepared for the venture ahead as I could be, and that was reassuring.
‘Leadership is a practical endeavour’
I began to hear the echoes of other voices from the programme as I continued my ascent. Amongst them was Rob Poynton’s reminding me that everything’s an offer. Now even closer to conquering my first fell of the day, I accepted the idea the scree might give way underfoot, drew on my fear-fuelled adrenaline each time I started sliding backwards, and scrambled (rather gracelessly) to the top. That day on the fells proved to be both my most challenging and my most rewarding.
Stepping in and grappling with doubt was something we were all exposed to while on the programme, but we did more than just discuss doubt. ‘Leadership is a practical endeavour’ writes Rob Poynton, in his ‘Do’ series book Improvise. ‘Thinking of leadership in terms of practice is a gift. But just as practice is a noun, practice is a verb, and carries, built into it, the idea of an activity that is continuous and never-ending.’
It's in the doing that we experience. And just as there are no armchair leaders, there are no armchair programme participants. Intellectualising and experiencing leadership is at that core of the OSLP, which is what sets it apart from other programmes. I had been given carte blanche to choose from a range of top-tier professional development courses in Europe and was hooked by Oxford’s promise of a genuinely transdisciplinary, experiential programme. My expectations were high, and my expectations were exceeded.
More thrilling than threatening
Since returning to Sydney I have consciously worked to infuse my leadership practice with my programme learnings – I’m doing. I try to notice more, step into the tension inherent in leadership, and leverage every opportunity. I’ve made a habit of reflecting more too, usually while walking. It’s these reflective moments that breed aha! moments to consolidate and enrich my practice.
The programme pushed me out of my comfort zone again and again, but that turned out to be more thrilling than threatening. The quality of the programme and those delivering it was matched by the quality of participants – I learnt as much from my generous, thoughtful, and intelligent peers (especially my tutor group peers) as I did from the faculty (from whom I learnt a great deal). My week in Oxford was rich with wisdom, sharing, vulnerability, laughter, a few tears, bonding, wonder, fear, and occasional moments of fearlessness. Plus, ample servings of Claus’ ‘chicken soup’.