How stressful experiences help to develop leaders

Insights from Hult Business School’s latest research on experiential learning.

What can organisations do to accelerate the development of their emerging leaders so they are prepared for the challenges of an increasingly complex business environment?

Ask that question at Hult, and the answer you will likely hear is “stress them”. An unexpected and somewhat controversial response perhaps. But what we know from our many years of researching how to develop leaders is that the most impactful way to prepare them for the challenges of leadership is through stressful experiences.

Organisations are struggling to fill management and executive roles with individuals who can cope with the challenges of today’s fast-moving, ambiguous and technology-driven business climate. They want seasoned leaders with 20/20 foresight, but they need them now – and there is limited patience for the traditionally lengthy programmes and processes needed to develop them.

So how do we address this challenge?

Clearly, the power and value of experience has long been understood. We know that lasting, transformational learning comes not through simply listening or observing, but through doing. We also know that for such experiences to have a long-lasting impact they need to be emotionally charged, providing an additional route through which we can recall that experience. What we are now also beginning to understand, however, is that stressful experiences may also lead to impactful learning because of the way we respond to stress.

Simply put, when we encounter a moderately stressful experience this stimulates a ‘challenge’ response, whereby blood and neurotransmitter activity is increased in the brain, optimising cognitive processes such as decision-making and learning. If, however, we don’t believe we have the resources available to meet the challenge, the body, perceiving ‘threat’, prepares to fight or retreat, sending blood away from the brain towards our limbs impeding our cognitive performance. To maximise learning, therefore, leaders need to be stretched, challenged, and ‘stressed’- but in a supportive environment that stops them tipping over into cognitive shutdown.

Hult has explored this idea by wiring up participants on its ‘The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge (TLE)’ programme to heart rate variance monitors which measured their stress response. What we found was that the high-pressure behavioural simulations significantly raised their heart rates and this change in heart rate was related to improved learning. Stressing leaders, therefore, was indeed effective in accelerating their learning and preparing them for leadership.

What we also know is being able to practise these experiences is likely to have important implications for a leader’s ability to deal with these situations when they encounter them in real life. This is due to a process dubbed building ‘muscle memory’, a stored response which helps leaders to feel better resourced in future stressful situations. This, in turn, means they are more likely to perceive a situation as a challenge rather than a threat, and as such will respond at their cognitive peak. So stressing leaders is likely to also help them to develop the resourcefulness to step up to leadership challenges when it really matters.

One of the questions we have also been exploring is whether it is possible to achieve equally impactful learning in the virtual environment. Virtual learning has many tangible benefits (it’s flexible, just-in-time, cost-effective and scalable). But although this method of delivery is widely used by organisations for ‘training’, there appears to be some reticence around using it for the development of leadership skills.

Our most recent research suggests, however, that it is not the environment that matters but the methodology.

We compared the impact of our traditional, face-to-face experiential TLE with a fully virtual version and a blended version. The latter two environments used a ‘zoom’ platform to allow for synchronous learning – participants interacted, visually, live and in real time. We found that all three environments were as effective as each other in enhancing specific leadership skills and in increasing learning agility (the ability to learn through reflection, and through others, and to manage one’s emotions).

If virtual leadership development is well designed and incorporates stress-inducing emotional experience, feedback and interaction, it can be just as effective as face-to-face learning, offering organisations a scalable, practical solution to developing their leaders in our global, digital environment.

Click here to learn more about The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge programme 


To find out more about our research contact Lee Waller on +44(0)1442 841079 or visit Research at Hult.

Article authored by Lee Waller, Director of Research, Hult International.

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