From simulation to realization

Leadership lessons from SIP

Wanda Orlikowski

For Professor Wanda J. Orlikowski, the intense workshop she helps facilitate during MIT Sloan's Innovation Period (SIP) is “all about learning.”

For the 50 or so participants who take part in the Bosnian Peacekeeping Force simulation, it is also about performance under stress, and how one can work within a team structure under the harshest of circumstances — all while developing the leader within.

“We really go into great detail and great depth,” says Orlikowski, the Eaton-Peabody Professor of Communication Sciences at MIT and Professor of Information Technologies and Organization Studies at MIT Sloan School. “It's an immersion experience ... and it's very realistic, complex, uncertain, and fast changing, where students are working with multiple stakeholders. It is one thing to learn the concepts and do some practice, but here they actually have to enact. They are the NATO forces; they have to go out and negotiate and they realize that if they don't do a good job, people end up suffering. It gets very real for them.”

Set in the 1990s during the Balkan conflict, Orlikowski says this highly realistic, real-time simulation “assigns some participants to be NATO forces charged with conducting an international refugee rescue mission in a hostile environment.” There are competing groups with competing interests — military forces, nongovernmental relief workers, and intergovernmental agencies — yet all must work together within a six-hour time frame to formulate a plan, mobilize action, and rescue those in danger.

“We have had groups before that have gotten very angry,” said Orlikowski, “but then we debrief for three hours ... and we talk about what were the consequences of getting so angry and how do they cope with very stressful situations.”

Four Capabilities, countless results

For Orlikowski, such simulations are par for the course as part of MIT Sloan's mission to help build better leaders for an increasingly complex and global society. To this end, Orlikowski was one of the key players in the establishment of MIT's Leadership Center in 2005— led by Professor Deborah Ancona — as well as the Four Capabilities Leadership Model, developed in 2002 along with Professors Ancona, Tom Malone and Senior Lecturer Peter Senge as “a powerful tool for understanding and integrating the four critical components of leadership: sensemaking, relating, visioning and inventing.”

“Teaching leadership is very difficult, and there is a debate of whether such a thing can be taught,” says Orlikowski, “We talked about what might be an effective program not just to teach leadership, but to create programs for students to learn leadership ... so we moved to an understanding of leadership not so much as a clear-cut domain knowledge, but to a set of capabilities that students can develop.”

After the three-day SIP simulation, Orlikowski says students are told that this is just the beginning of their ongoing development as leaders.

“We believe that everybody has the potential to develop leadership qualities,” she says. “We're all different, we all have different personalities, and we're all born with a set of dispositions, but then it's what we do with those that ultimately makes a difference. ... I'm very much of the persuasion of it is what people do with what they get that shapes them as leaders.”