(Illustration by Ward Schumaker/The i Spot)

Experimental theater

Scenes from a minicourse at the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership.

The first few minutes of the online course Ambidextrous Leadership: Strategies for Agility have the pleasant, erudite feel of a PBS miniseries. As Telemannʼs Viola Concerto in G Major plays, one UChicago shot fades into another: Hull Court at twilight, the Universityʼs center in Hong Kong nestled among trees, a birdʼs-eye view of Hutchinson Commons.

Meanwhile, the 1,500 people who signed up for the free five-session Chicago Booth minicourse—alumni, students, staff, members of the public—are connecting to the lunchtime webinar. Itʼs another odd pandemic moment. We canʼt be together in person, but because itʼs a remote course, hundreds of busy executives have found an hour to attend in the middle of their overscheduled day.

At four minutes past noon, the music cuts out. Nathaniel Grotte of the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership, whoʼs serving as teaching assistant and Zoom host, welcomes us to the course, then introduces the professor—the man the Davis Center is named for.

Harry L. Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management, has taught at Booth since 1963. The Davis Center for Leadership honors both his six decades at Booth and his zest for experimentation. Davis leads the class from a comfortable-looking home office with light blue walls, a built-in bookcase, and a sunny window seat.

Since heʼs been at Booth so long, Davis says, he has become “an unofficial historian.” To set the tone for the course, he quotes from a 1959 paper by former business school dean W. Allen Wallis, EXʼ35, subtitled “What Constitutes an ‘Education for Businessʼ? Where Does It Begin—and End?”The answer comes in the paperʼs final sentence: “The business of schools of business is preparation for lifelong learning from experience.”

Davis shares his screen. The goal is not just lifelong learning but lifelong learning from experience: “Our very own personal classroom,” he says, filled with experiences “that we actively create.” On-screen is a diagram of the life cycle of Booth students, showing the years before they become students, their time as students, then the following decades as working alumni and retired alumni.

“Every time I look at this figure, Iʼm really struck at the small sliver of time we have in the lives of our students,” Davis observes, his delivery calm, slow, and rather mesmerizing. The minicourse, which runs from late September to late November with a reunion planned for March, is intended to support the lifelong learning he wants all Booth grads to pursue.

Often, Davis continues, you hear about the need to be “authentic” as a leader, with just one true self, no matter the circumstances. But thereʼs another approach that could make your leadership more effective: the idea of “multiple selves that are all legitimate parts of who we are.”

As a visual metaphor, Davis displays photos of a peach and an onion. A peach has a solid pit, representing the notion of a single true nature. But an onion has no real center—just more layers.

Davis asks the group to take a quick survey, using Zoomʼs poll function: As a leader, are you a peach or an onion? The class, it turns out, is full of self-identified onions: 80 percent.

How can leaders develop a more nuanced collection of authentic selves—to be onions, not peaches—in order to lead better? Davis shifts metaphors, citing his friend and mentor Barbara Lanebrown, MBAʼ91. Lanebrown had a 25-year career as a playwright, actor, and artistic director before beginning the MBA program in 1989, Davis says, “when I was serving in the deanʼs office.” (Davis is known for his modesty; he was “serving in the deanʼs office” because he was the deputy dean for the MBA program.)

In her transition to management study—“a quite ambidextrous move,” Davis notes—Lanebrown brought with her a range of theater metaphors. Among them was the idea that your multiple selves could be imagined as characters on a theater stage.

Davis shares a simple diagram of a stage. Downstage characters are nearer to the audience, while the upstage characters recede into the background. Meanwhile, a cast of unseen characters lurk in the wings or backstage, waiting for their moment to shine.

For many leaders, a small group of personas dominates their personal stage: what Davis calls “tried and true” characters. Another quick poll for the class: What is one of your tried and true characters?

In the chat box, the answers scroll in like rapid-fire dialogue. Some standard characters appear over and over—The Problem Solver, The Collaborator. Others are more esoteric: The Farmer, The Cool Cucumber, The MacGyver. (See “Alter Egos,” below.)

The group of characters most often downstage makes up your “inner ensemble,” Davis says. But leaders should ask themselves why they deploy the same small group again and again. Do you have enough characters on your personal stage? Are they diverse enough? Do all of them get their moment in the spotlight?

Rather than always bringing out the regulars, leaders should experiment with “untested” or “unseen” characters. The goal of the minicourse, Davis says, is to help the participants develop “a larger, more diverse and inclusive inner ensemble thatʼs ambidextrous and more effective across different contexts.”

But how do you try out these characters? Davis hands the class over to leadership coach Ed Miller, MBAʼ83, to explain. The home office background shifts: Millerʼs walls are beige, his bookshelf black and closer behind him.

Miller lists examples of leaders heʼs worked with over the years who wanted to expand their ensemble. One consultant realized she relied too much on The Task Master. Her teams made their tight deadlines, but she alienated talented team members in the process. Although it felt risky to her, she needed to let The Empathetic One come onstage sometimes. The result: her teams worked harder for her and the work improved.

Choose character names that make sense to you personally, Miller says. One leader he advised, who was from Argentina, wanted to become more assertive; she visualized this assertive character as The Tango Dancer. Another wanted to promote his own ideas better in a team setting, so he imagined himself as The Carnival Barker: “Charismatic, confident, high-energy, the consummate salesman.”

Itʼs poignant, thinking about performers and audiences at a time when Chicagoʼs usually vibrant theaters have been shuttered for months—and when instructors themselves are disembodied talking heads, unable to stride around a classroom or gesture broadly to make a point. Nonetheless, the metaphor holds a powerful allure. Playacting a fully formed character—rather than just telling yourself, “be more empathic” or “be more assertive”—somehow makes it seem intuitive, almost easy. Like calling in someone completely different to help.

The class ends with an assignment: Pick a backstage character, try it out, then carefully observe what happens. Miller has developed a four-step process for this kind of leadership experiment, which he calls the Learning from Experience Framework. Step one: Observe and be present. Step two: Experiment and capture data. Step three: Reflect and share. Step four: Apply what you learned.

“By increasing your inner ensemble and learning to tap the right characters with the right audience at the right time,” says Miller, “we believe youʼll become a more ambidextrous and agile leader.”

Harry Davis
The goal of the minicourse, Davis says, is to help the participants develop “a larger, more diverse and inclusive inner ensemble thatʼs ambidextrous and more effective across different contexts.” (Photography by Lloyd Degrane)

Throughout the fall, the class convenes every two weeks, with a different guest speaker each time. In session two, Nicholas Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and author of Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want (Knopf, 2014), explains his research on human connection. In session three, Ann L. McGill, MBAʼ85, PhDʼ86, the Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing, and Behavioral Science and former Booth deputy dean for the full-time MBA programs, discusses how context affects a situationʼs outcome—not just individual behavior, though we tend to perceive it that way.

In session four, William Howell, chair of political science and the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics, reflected on the different leadership challenges at the various stages of his career. As a faculty member, he was focused on contributing to a body of scholarship. As a department chair, his focus shifted to advocating for his faculty. Most recently, as founder of the Center for Effective Government, Howell has had to raise money and connect with pro-democracy advocacy groups and other audiences outside UChicago.

At the end of that fourth session, students were invited to write an optional reflection paper, one to two pages long, on putting the course lessons into practice: “What character have you been experimenting with? What experiments have you tried, or plan to try? What successes have you experienced in these experiments? What challenges have you encountered in your experiments?”

“We were very impressed when we were reading the papers that were sent in last week,” Davis says at the beginning of the final class meeting, just before Thanksgiving. So impressed that five of the course participants have been invited to present their findings to the class.

The first to discuss her paper, educational consultant Alejandra Corredor Melo, MBAʼ10, joins the class from Bogotá, Colombia. Behind her, a bookcase fills the screen, with a Chicago Booth banner draped jauntily along the top and a stuffed Yoda and Mickey Mouse peeking in at the bottom. Corredor Melo explains that she created a Google form and sent it to 40 people she had worked with over the past five years, “asking them to anonymously describe me using three to five words.”

As viewers at home silently reel at that idea, Corredor Melo admits, “I have to say that receiving their feedback made me feel uncomfortable, and I wasnʼt fully prepared for that. ... We are usually used to receiving feedback for our work, and not having people evaluate us as human beings, as persons. Having that poll be anonymous allowed people to be very honest.” Once the forms were in, Corredor Melo built a spreadsheet, then analyzed the data to choose what new character to develop. She decided to try out a cartoon character, “because theyʼre very complex, yet theyʼre very predictable.”

(In a subsequent interview, Corredor Melo explained that her tried and true character is Donald Duck, who is “loving and generous. He looks after his nephews, … is a good and loyal friend to Mickey and Goofy. However, Donald has a very quick temper and overreacts when angry.” Her new character, Cecil Turtle, “is tranquil but extremely smart, competitive, and well connected. … He systematically outsmarts Bugs Bunny. … I relate to several of Cecilʼs traits except one: he is tranquil and doesnʼt allow Bugs to annoy him. Cecil was a perfect fit.” For more on Corredor Meloʼs paper, see “What If You Tried to be More Like a Cartoon Character?”)

During the Q&A after the student presentations, a few participants ask how to get honest feedback—especially on Zoom, when itʼs hard to read facial expressions and body language. “I think itʼs pretty easy to build a Google form,” Corredor Melo suggests. “If you have a difficult meeting, afterwards you can just send them an open Google form that is anonymous. ... Just ask them and they will tell you the truth.”

With just a few minutes left, moderator Grotte asks Davis and Miller if they have any “parting wisdom.” Miller reminds everyone that there is no prepackaged list of characters to choose from, and that each leader needs to build their own: “For you to create it, and name it, is going to make it more powerful for you.”

“When we started this minicourse,” Davis says, “I donʼt think I ever thought we would end up with possibly creating what Don Campbell, who was a very well-known social psychologist, called ‘an experimenting society.ʼ” (This ideal society, in Campbellʼs description, would be one “which experiments, tries things out, explores possibilities in action.” Like a larger version of the Davis Center.) “I think itʼs an exciting notion,” Davis concludes, “that maybe this is the beginning of a society that will continue experimenting for many, many years ahead.”

Alter egos

Some of the “tried and true characters” students in the course said they rely on.

The Architect
The Artist
The Bridge Builder
The Cartographer
The Cheerleader
The Curator
The Curious Child
The Curious One
The Diplomat
The Enthusiast
The Essayist
The Evangelist
The Firefighter
The General
The Ham
The Jiujitsu Master
The Joker
The Nudge
The Parent
The Peacekeeper
The Psychiatrist
The Rabbi
The Rebel
The Sage
The Storyteller
The Terminator
The Yes Man

Updated 03.11.2021