The Missing Party: The Bridge Consultant

October 29, 2015 By Katherine Tyler Scott

I recently attended the 17th Annual Conference of the International Leadership Association (ILA), “Leading Across Borders and Generations,” in Barcelona, Spain. Over 1,000 practitioners, educators and scholars from 53 countries partook in a panoply of pre and post conference offerings, workshops, round table discussions, poster sessions, member meetings, and plenaries. If you are in the field of leadership ILA is a vital resource and network to which to belong. 

One of the three plenaries featured a co-keynote with Dr. Gill Hickman, Professor Emerita and inaugural faculty member in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and Jorrit Volkers, Dean of Deloitte University Europe, Middle East and Africa. Their presentations and subsequent conversation addressed the theme: “Rigor and Relevance in Theory and Practice.” The combination of two highly successful professionals from two very different sectors who wouldn’t ordinarily connect would have been groundbreaking in any other venue, but not in ILA, a global network, whose uniqueness resides in its vision and mission of connecting scholars, practitioners, and educators in the field of leadership for the promotion of a deeper knowledge of leadership and its application on behalf of the greater good worldwide.  Both displayed intellectual acuity, one educating students about leadership; the other educating professionals for leadership. They embodied the potential for learning and growth individually and systemically when we bridge theory and practice in a setting that values candid conversations that identify both abilities and limitations. 

Both keynoters shared their well thought out models of leadership development; both realized that theory without the voice of practice is an empty promise, and practice without theory is a captive of superficiality. Neither, without the other, can produce the changes in leadership development that Jorrit seeks and provides and about which Gill teaches and writes. 

Scholars, practitioners and researchers, who are the most knowledgeable about adaptive and transformational leadership, know that unless we start having these deeper cross disciplinary conversations and trainings, those we teach will be ill-prepared to lead in this era of unparalleled change and increasingly complex “wicked” problems. Jorrit ended his formal remarks by sharing Deloitte’s elegant and intricate model of leadership education and desired results. Although considerable resources have been invested in this conceptual framework and there is great pride in it he wondered whether leaders such as Churchill, Martin Luther King, or Gandhi would be screened out in this Model. His provocative and adaptive question was met with Gill’s thoughtful response and equally elegant leadership education model she shared as an option for consideration. It reflected her identity as a “Pracademic.” Gill’s approach to leadership education and development has historically been one that has bridged theory and practice while still taking into account the academic culture’s requirements for the attainment of tenure as the pinnacle of success. The culture strongly supports scholar-to-scholar communication, even when a desire to collaborate with practitioners exists. 

As the moderator of this inaugural co-keynote, and in preparation for the conversation, I read voluminous material about both institutions and listened intently on the phone calls and during their presentations. What I witnessed was a mutual openness to learning from the others’ professional and personal perspectives, a vulnerability seldom witnessed publically, and the notable development of mutual respect and trust – all prerequisites for learning and leading across borders and for doing the adaptive and challenging work of bridging theory and practice. There was an acknowledgement of barriers and obstacles - some real and some self-inflicted – all expressed and heard without judgement or arrogance. It was exemplary of what we at Ki ThoughtBridge call “reading of reality;“ a practice we invite leaders to develop if they want their leadership to be ethical, authentic and effective. 

ILA will continue to be a professional oasis where fellow travelers can engage in cross sector conversations that will benefit individuals, organizations, and communities across the globe. I find this reassuring professionally and promising for the field. So what is still missing? Who else needs to be a party to this conversation? 

I believe it’s the reflective, research-based practitioner of leadership and provider of leadership development. Those of us who begin with where our clients are, and custom design and deliver leadership development programs that integrate theory are the third party in this conversation. We have internalized the practice of action research and developed the discipline of continually evaluating what we do, questioning why, and discerning the impact of our work given the outcomes we have negotiated with our clients. 

The criticism leveled at consultants as a whole is that we are drawn to the latest metaphorical “shiny object,” caught up in selling what is popular; that we are advocates of immediate solutions and deliverers of canned curricula that have no connection to a particular culture and/or the specific needs of clients. 

Although Ki ThoughtBridge consultants don’t engage in such practices we know of too many others who do. As long as there is a market for this kind and level of practice they will continue to be offered.  Unlike Deloitte University’s Dean Volkers there are many organizations and leaders willing to spend millions on canned programs that have no action learning or reflective components, lack any basis in applied research, and that still apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges while still expecting sustainable change. A disconnect between practice and theory makes such organizations and their programs even more susceptible to passing fads and false promises. This state of leadership education serves to perpetuate the search for quick fixes. Some organizations seem resigned to the belief that this is the cost-effective way to develop leaders. And some are deciding they have to create programs themselves. 

There is a better way, a more effective way, and it requires a three way conversation between scholars, practitioners, and consultants - all three need to be at the table. The reflective, research-based practitioner is the bridge person, an expert who constantly connects theory and practice. These “bridge” consultants immerse themselves in the latest research and theory, and are translators between theory and practice for the sake of those they serve. They don’t cherry pick ideas to graft on to already preconceived ways of working; nor do they justify using old but familiar approaches to emerging and new contexts.  They refuse to stay in their professional comfort zones and keep expanding the boundaries of their knowledge and practice. 

“Bridge” consultants listen deeply and observe broadly and have the courage to share what they see with clients that may be leaning toward quick-fix and mechanistic approaches in a reality of challenging and complex problems.  They know themselves –their gifts and limitations - and they possess a solid center with flexible edges. They practice from an integrative, depth, conceptual framework and understanding that has withstood the rigor and scrutiny of clients and peers from multiple disciplines. 

More of us are needed –practitioners that remain connected and in conversation with scholars and educators who are also engaged in the rigor necessary to ensure that leadership education is and remains relevant. 

We just need to add the third party – the bridge consultant- to the conversation.