How does the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme make magic happen?

4 minute read

As an organisational culture change specialist, I was very curious to understand how the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme with 34 participants from 20 different nationalities, 20 different industries and 23 different roles, will make itself relevant for each person in only six days.

Initially, I decided to embark on the challenge to further advance my own leadership journey and learn new skills from the Saïd Business School faculty, associated instructors and diverse group of colleagues. After completing the programme, my expectations were not only exceeded, but new learnings that I did not anticipate also emerged. As I reflect on my valuable experience and read all the enthusiastic post-completion LinkedIn posts from my peers, I am impressed at how this programme revealed itself as so enriching for such a diverse group of people.

This blog aims to provide a glimpse of the foundational elements that I consider make it such a fruitful programme. These elements contribute to creating an inclusive learning environment. People can feel they are seen and safe to be themselves, be more open to embrace change and grow personally and professionally. 

There are lots of highlights during the programme that one could emphasise as being special, such as conducting a professional chorus, participating in a poetry dinner, closely reading Ulysses by James Joyce, understanding our personal archetypes based on a monologue of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, applying acting techniques from improv theatre, amongst others. But if I had to give a brief answer on how the programme makes magic happen, it would be by sharing five key pillars:

1. It takes advantage of what its context can offer

Since the programme is offered by Oxford University, it uses so many of the Universities' value propositions linked to its history, architecture, humanities (eg literature, anthropology, arts) and people (eg faculty, instructors, alumni). These connections infuse energy by giving students a deep sense of inspiration that comes from its cultural heritage.

2. It turns the sophisticated and lengthy into accessible and simple

Scenario planning, complexity science, culture change management, sustainable business, are all complicated subjects that could easily take a couple of semesters to have a relatively good sense of them. However, the programme provides a baseline of knowledge that is established in only a few sessions. By making knowledge accessible to all, we were able to select what’s relevant for each of us and extrapolate key insights to apply in our own contexts.

3. It designs the environment for individual and group growth

Expect to enjoy an excessive amount of delicious food and good wine in a retreat type of environment, where nature and focus on wellbeing are present. This deep sense of comfort and friendly environment provides you with the openness required to experience in good shape - physically and mentally - the challenges and uncomfortable situations that we encountered. Dealing with information that speaks to deep, core issues is hard, and even more, for a group of people that is not used to receiving disinterested, constructive feedback.

4. It reinforces the importance of psychological safety

At key occasions, the programme exemplifies how to role model vulnerability without oversharing nor exaggerating. This role modelling creates a sense of safety that allows us also to feel OK with our own imperfections, but most importantly, to be OK when we are experiencing uncomfortable situations and/or being challenged. By not getting defensive but instead accepting our imperfections, we were able to realise that we were overlooking important aspects that we need to pay attention to, to grow as leaders.

5. It establishes inclusive rules from the start

There was a set of principles of engagement that we had to agree upon and sign before starting the programme. They highlighted respect and consideration as key aspects on how to engage as a student during the programme. Additionally, at the start of the event, the leaders gave clear indications and reinforced this message. Behind the scenes, I also suspect that there is a good amount of thinking on the selection of candidates. For example, I could sense that people with integrity and strong positive values were part of the requisites of the accepted student profile. I suspect that people that were interested mainly in revenue making would not be a priority selection for this programme.

One finally key ingredient of how the programme makes magic happen was by not giving any external case studies, blueprints, or simple solutions. As my tutor Claus D. Jacobs said, 'each of you as a participant of this programme is the case study'. Therefore, there is probably much more work for me now than when I started the programme, but the energy infused and inspiration given to me feels like there are good things that are going to happen as a consequence of my participation. Taking these five pillars and applying them to my own working environment is definitely my big first goal.


Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme