Teachable Moments of Leadership

28 Videos to Make Leadership Real in your Team

FOREWORD by Marty Linsky, our mentor

There have been three moments in my life that profoundly influenced the way I teach, facilitate and deploy myself professionally…and personally.

Early 1959. In my sophomore year at college. From 4-6:00 pm, twice a week, 10 of us sat around an oblong-shaped table on the second floor of a little white house in the middle of the bucolic Williams College campus, discussing political philosophy. The professor was Bob Gaudino, a small intense man with a big head and large, round beady eyes that seemed to nearly exploding as he challenged us. We were discussing Spinoza. I said something, likely pretty banal, and Gaudino leaned over the table, eyes bulging, and said, “Yes, Mr. Linsky, but what does that have to do with you?”

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that anything that happened in a classroom had anything to do with me, other than the game I’d been playing successfully for 14 years of figuring out what I needed to learn to get a good grade. That some 17th-century Dutch philosopher had any insight that was relevant to me as a slowly (very slowly!) maturing human being had been beyond my imagination. Gaudino’s response stuck, helping me understand that, as a good friend who died of AIDS titled the book he wrote after he had temporarily bested the disease, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”

A quarter-century later, I attended a four-day experiential group relations conference of the A.K. Rice Institute, which opened me to the skills and language necessary to begin perhaps just to understand what is going on in any group at any time. Just the assumption that there was something not obvious going on was news to me. Finally, in 1995 I fulfilled a long-time aspiration to take acting lessons. That experience made me aware of the power of being fully present and of the skills required to do so. There were two brief moments in there when I felt the euphoria of being fully present. One was a soliloquy about Jews and fathers. The other was a scene where I got into a physical altercation with an actor playing my daughter's unacceptable boyfriend. I was so completely in the moment (and not in my head), that I literally could not remember what had happened. What I still do remember was feeling both elated and drained.

Treating every moment as a personal learning opportunity, seeing what is going on while you are in the midst of it, and being fully present are at the core of Case-in-Point teaching that Jill Hufnagel and Adriano Pianesi have so beautifully, helpfully, and clearly laid out in this website. They have come very close to meeting Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s seminal challenge to thinkers and writers to “get to simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Three cautionary thoughts

First, browsing this website is like taking a tennis lesson. There are plenty of useful tips and insights that will help you perfect your practice, too much to absorb quickly. Like after that tennis lesson, the first time you try to put it all together you are likely to fumble around. Don’t expect to crack it open on the first try…. or the second. That feeling of being on the edge of your competence has never disappeared for me. I screw it up regularly. Have a partner so you can be saved in real-time when you are digging yourself into a hole and so you have someone to help you debrief. Videotape yourself so you can see the moments you may have missed, the choices you made, the options you did not see, and those you passed by. This is a long-term play.

Second, for me, the hardest part of using Case-in-Point is emotional: the commitment to make interpretations and take risks in the interest of shared learning; the tolerance for silence and ambiguity; and, most critical, the willingness to not be liked at the moment. I find a direct correlation between how empty my head is and how effective I am in the front of the room.

Third, this website is appropriately framed for teaching and facilitating leadership development. However, Case-in-Point is a life skill, useful for managing yourself and interacting with people every day. For me, bringing your whole self to the party is an ongoing challenge. Jill and Adriano have made themselves vulnerable here, modeling the behavior, using their own real-time experience—including their mistakes—to enhance our learning.

Buckle up. Enjoy the ride.

Marty Linsky
Faculty Harvard Kennedy School;
Co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates;
Co-author Leadership on the Line and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.
New York, NY June 2016