water children communityReal situations, real people, real consequences – the power of using community projects as a vehicle for learning! We need our leaders to step up to the challenges of our time, to look beyond the horizon of their organizations and engage with the wider world. To question whether business has a role to play in society is out-of-date; now the question is “How can business contribute to society and a sustainable world?”

Why then, with an increasing focus on the role of business in the world do we still have leadership development programmes packed full with models, theories and activities that are somehow divorced from what’s happening? When we need leaders who are more open to the perspectives of others, who increasingly need, as Otto Scharmer of MIT says, to ‘lead from the emerging future’ then why do many of our programmes still focus on what’s needed within the boundaries of an organization to succeed as a leader? Whilst this is still important it’s not the single domain of leadership. Using community projects as an integral part of a leadership programme shifts this focus from internal to external. Not only this, it can demonstrate the power of cross-sector partnership, adopting an approach of enquiry, the value of understanding the perspectives of others and can have life-changing impact on participants and partners alike.

Whether the project involves engaging with the beneficiaries of a community organization or working directly with the leaders in a consultancy role, the very fact that participants on a programme are engaging with people they would not normally come into contact with in itself makes a difference. When leaders of 20 years are moved to tears by the determination of young people they engage with to make a difference in their community you know that something more meaningful than a ‘key learning point’ has taken place. When participants on a programme continue to volunteer (in their own time) with the organization they have worked with to provide ongoing consultancy you know that the experience touched them on level beyond their leadership within their organization.

Now, of course, these projects come with a health warning! If not set up properly then there’s a minefield of misunderstandings and failed expectations waiting in the wings. They need to be win-win situations. They have to be of the right nature and scope for the leadership learning to take place and they have to be of value to the community partner organization. They also need to be structured and facilitated in a way that allows reflection and consolidation of the leadership learning – these projects are not just volunteering! And, finally, they, of course, need to lead to a change in leadership behavior back in the workplace. When a project achieves all of the above I really don’t believe that there’s any more powerful learning experience – this is learning that really does make a difference.