The Flight of the Ornithologist

As a Global Program Manager for Microsoft, Mark Farrelly is responsible for the design and delivery of education for recent college graduates hired by Microsoft in more than 60 countries around the world.

Jake Breeden: Mark, I know you're interested in leadership education and in birds, which reminds me of an expression I’ve heard that connects both of those areas: "A bird is not an ornithologist." The expression was used to suggest that leaders shouldn’t be teaching leadership – that the business of leadership education is best left to the scholars who study it, not those who practice it. But on the other hand, what value can educators who haven’t done leadership themselves provide?

So what do you think? Who is best served to teach leadership: the scholars who study it or the leaders who do it? Can birds be ornithologists?

Mark Farrelly: I think it’s a combination of both. If you are trying to learn the mechanics of flying (how the wings create lift, how they vary from species to species, etc.) you’d probably want to talk to an ornithologist. However, if I were a bird, I don’t think I’d want to leap out of a tall tree without being able to observe other birds first. It’s true that we humans learn about birds from ornithologists, but birds learn from other birds.

On the other hand, ornithologists have an important role. We often hear that some people are “natural leaders,” but I think that even the most talented leaders are more effective if they take the time to understand why they are effective. In short, if they spend time reflecting on how their wings work they will improve future performance. And when it’s time to reflect and take leadership skills to new heights, outside “ornithologists” – educators, coaches, etc. – can provide tremendous value.

Must ornithologists demonstrate their own flying skills? I don’t think they are there to teach Flight 101. A business professor, clinical psychologist, or an organizational design expert can provide valuable insights into leadership challenges, even without having led a large company. Outside experts who have studied typical patterns of behavior and strategies for success that span many companies and situations help leaders avoid the mistakes that others have made and consider new approaches.

In addition, if the CEO of a company spent most of his or her time studying and teaching effective leadership techniques, I’d think about selling off some stock. I believe most current and aspiring leaders get plenty of flight time at work, and can really benefit from landing for a bit and debriefing with ornithologists before they take to the air again.

Jake, as you know, I’ve primarily been focused on leadership training for people who are relatively early in career (baby birds?), and I know that you have had a lot of experience teaching leadership at all levels and career stages. I’m a firm believer that one can lead from any role at any level, but as an educator how do you approach people differently at different stages of their careers? How does it change the dynamic when they have a large organization to run versus a smaller team—or even if they are an individual contributor?

JB: I'll answer your question about more senior audiences by turning to a different zoological metaphor. I remember an experienced business school professor giving me advice about working with more senior audiences. He said that I shouldn't be fooled by seeing the executives in the classroom -- it's an artificial setting. It's just as artificial as seeing a lion in a cage at a zoo. With a group of more senior leaders, one of the most valuable things educators provide is a safe place and time for reflection and learning from each other. Educators must be aware and respectful of all that leaders have learned in the wild and provide a bit of intellectual stimulus to help make new meaning (much as Robert Rosenfeld describes here). Newer leaders, however, are often hungry for tools and techniques to help master their current roles.

Thanks for your reply on the bird vs. ornithologist question. I have one more question for you, related to another part of your background and interests. I know you studied theater in graduate school before turning to the world of corporate education. Any common links between the world of management education and the theater? Any opportunity for educators to learn from the world of the stage?

MF: Most professional actors (and artists in general) never stop learning their craft.  It’s only through constant study and learning from every role that an actor evolves and improves.  I think leadership is a similar skill. As leaders move from one business to another and take on more responsibility and larger organizations, it is even more important that they are open to growing and changing.  You know the old saying “there are no small parts, only small actors”? I think this applies to leaders as well—there are leaders at any level of the organization and the more they are open to learning the craft of leadership the better they will be at every stage of a career.

We may think of a leader as someone who has to act a certain way (bold, inspiring, fiery, etc.), but a good leader can inspire by being him or herself, not by pretending to be a stereotype. There’s a parallel to the theatre in this as well.  The primary form of actor training in this country is derivative of the work of Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor/director whose techniques were brought to this country in the early twentieth century and are largely described in layman’s terms by the shorthand “method acting.”  If you’ve heard this term, you probably think of “crazy” actors who stay in character all of the time and transform themselves into someone else.  Daniel Day Lewis, Russell Crowe, Robert DeNiro and others are known for this type of performance—they will live like the character for several months prior to filming and go to extraordinary lengths to learn the role (learning other languages, staying in a wheelchair for weeks, adding or losing weight, etc.).

Though this is part of method acting, they are not trying to be someone else; they are trying to figure out what it would be like if they actually were the character. In other words, if you are playing Hamlet the best way to play him in this method is to start by saying “What if?” What would I be like if I were born into Danish royalty in the 15th century?  What are the circumstances of my life in the play that make me act, speak, dress, and move the way that I do?  That’s how you can begin to approach the character. What would I, Mark Farrelly, do if my father died under mysterious circumstances? What would I do if I had to take revenge on my uncle? You can’t be someone else (how would you even begin to approach that?), but you can say “What if that were me?".

Just like an actor, a leader’s “style” should come naturally from within. It’s true that leaders need to be aware of how others are perceiving them and to make sure that they are in control of their reactions, but at the end of the day, you can only be your self—your best self—and that will make people see you as a leader. People will know if you are pretending to be something you’re not, or if you’re not being genuine with them. 

That’s a long answer to a short question. I hope it will lead to a renewed interest in acting training among CEOs. Acting teachers could use the money . . .