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Stephen Barden

Top leaders’ experiences of learning

Area: Coaching

Session on Tuesday, Jun 23th, 16:50
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Dr Stephen Barden is a coaching practitioner working with board level leaders and their successors. He entered the profession after 30 years of corporate life, 15 of them at Exco and Board Level. He has been C.E.O. of News Digital Systems, Axel Springer Television and Quadriga, as well as C.O.O. of BskyB and Managing Editor of TV-am.

Stephen holds a Doctorate in Professional Studies (DProf) from Middlesex University in the UK for his research study into the learning experiences of top leaders. He has a diploma in Professional Coach-mentoring for Senior Executives from the Oxford School of Coaching in the UK, is a trained mediator accredited to the School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, Regents College, London and has trained in organisational development, action centred leadership and negotiation.


This qualitative grounded theory study explores how ten top leaders experienced their learning, whether there were any commonalities in their learning and how that learning could be applied to leadership development and coaching. Four military generals, three corporate chief executives and three academic leaders were interviewed on learning experiences that they judged as being influential. These interviews were transcribed and analysed according to social constructivist grounded theory through a process of initial, focused and clustered coding followed by individual theme development and common theme construction. A tentative theory emerged from the data.

At each stage findings were referred back to the ten research participants for their validation. Finally a ‘reflective conversation’ was held with each leader, during which they were asked to rate the level of their identification with 11 characteristics and tools that were identified from the common themes. The results showed considerable common identification and use across the entire sample. Findings indicate that, very early in their lives, these top leaders developed a navigational stance based on their exploration of early relationships (Bowlby, 1988), which assumes a ‘partnering’ relationship with their world. This navigational stance is strengthened by the consistent and compound application of a navigation template consisting of 11 identified tools and characteristics. These are: navigation (finding a way through), pragmatism (doing the best possible), three-way challenges, socialised decision-making, no attachment to failure (but to holding accountable), an acute sense of reality (no wishful thinking), holism (seeing linkages within and between contexts), alertness to constituents, a sense of direction (with no dogma), use of mentors and the use of the tools as a composite template.

Three innovative insights emerge: a) that the individuals in this research who go on to be successful organisational heads, experience their relationship with their world as a manageable partnership at an early age, b) that because this partnership relationship is perceived to be effective, they reinforce and refine it by the consistent application of a navigation template, and c) that the consistent application of the navigation template may cause these leaders to be in default transformative learning mode.

The developing theory and model is articulated and applied to leadership coaching.

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