Executive Education à la Carte: Interview with Dr Dimitrios Spyridonidis, Associate Professor of Leadership, WBS

Executive education programmes often have a fixed content that may not be a perfect fit for every student’s aims and aspirations. However, as Warwick Business School’s Dimitrios Spyridonidis explains, the school’s Leadership Pathways programme allows participants to design their own personal and professional development journey.

What was 2023 like for you?

They say that “time flies when you’re having fun” and this truly represents last year for me. In 2023, we saw organisations across various sectors rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic and we’re starting to see positive progress.

It’s been wonderful to witness the steady return of executives from across the globe to our campus at The Shard. This shift back to the classroom and witnessing colleagues, friends, and participants returning has been invigorating and it’s great to see the resurgence of face-to-face interactions and business activities.

In “The five paradoxes leaders need to embrace in the 2020s”, you mentioned that leaders don’t like paradoxes because it creates uncertainty. Does this belief still hold true for you today? 

Yes, completely. I think that, although we’re seeing recovery from the pandemic, we’re still living in extreme, ambiguous, and volatile environments. My belief is that the business environment is becoming more uncertain than ever and, of course, that creates a lot of headaches for leaders. So, leaders have to embrace a paradox mindset. This is a one-way street. The paradox mindset will enable leaders to embrace uncertainty, rather than work against it. This will enable leaders to become more relevant and add value in what they do for themselves, their groups, their organisations, and society at large. Simply put, a paradox is the result of two imperatives or realities that don’t seem to be able to coexist at the same time.

Leaders have to embrace a paradox mindset. This is a one-way street. The paradox mindset will enable leaders to embrace uncertainty, rather than work against it.

Our research suggests that leaders struggle with the urge to push towards both realities simultaneously and, in paradox language, we refer to the ends of the paradox as the poles. Business leaders deal with paradoxes all the time. For instance, should leaders support stability or change within the organisation? Should they tailor their goods and services to suit the needs of the community? Or should they develop globally standardised goods and services? Which should they prioritise: increasing operational efficiency or funding R&D and innovation? The issue, of course, is that selecting one side of the paradox exposes them to the drawbacks of the other. Businesses that fully embrace change run the risk of ruining their human capital resources and burning out their workforce. However, businesses that completely embrace stability might not be able to adjust to the way the external environment is changing.

Proficient leaders acquire the ability to embrace both business ends. So, to answer your question, I think a paradox mindset is becoming critical for leadership, but many leaders find it difficult to embrace it. This belief still holds true for me today and, at Warwick, we develop tools and knowledge that can help executives embrace a paradox mindset in their everyday practice.

Given your expertise, how do you foresee the role of empathy and emotional intelligence evolving in leadership development, especially in the context of emerging business challenges?

We need to see the emerging business challenges in the broader context of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world and that means that leadership development has to change and adapt to these circumstances. This means that human aspects of leadership, such as empathy and emotional intelligence, become more relevant than ever. Let’s take, for example, the challenge of automating the business environment without really dehumanising the workforce. Here, empathy and emotional intelligence, as well as the immense ability to be self-aware, become very critical for leaders and their people. This is because automation can create a lot of benefits for businesses, but also profound uncertainty for the workforce. It is critical that leaders should be able to understand and manage emotions and communicate with empathy and the intent to create an environment where employees feel safe, valued and understood. So, these human aspects of leadership are becoming more and more relevant. It’s interesting, because we call those the soft skills of leadership, but these are the hardest to develop, so we need to focus more attention on how leaders can communicate with empathy and become more self-aware about their emotions and how their emotions influence their decision-making.

Your research has been published in leading academic journals, including Organisation Studies, Journal of Management Studies, Human Resource Management, Public Administration, and Human Relations. You were also the lead editor of a 2016 special issue on translational research in the International Journal of Management Reviews. What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about leadership? 

Leadership theory and practice is complex and remains complex. However, if you take a deep dive into leadership theory, you realise that leadership theory has romanticised individual heroic leaders and continues to do so. There is nothing wrong with this but, in a VUCA environment, it doesn’t work. For leadership to become relevant in today’s world, we need to redefine the way that academics and business schools at large define what leadership is, where it comes from, and how we teach it. At Warwick, we are really passionate about this and with our research we’re continuously redefining what leadership should look like in the VUCA world, where it comes from, and how we teach it. We do this in order to offer more relevant theories and frameworks with our executive education offerings so as to make our knowledge more relevant and impactful for leaders, their organisations, and society.

Can you tell us more about the Warwick Leadership Pathways?

We developed our Warwick Executive Diplomas to cater to the needs of busy executives. The Warwick Leadership Pathways offer a flexible framework of personal and professional development that enables our executives to design their own development journey and address their unique needs, challenges, and skill gaps.

The Warwick Leadership Pathways offer a flexible framework of personal and professional development that enables our executives to design their own development journey and address their unique needs, challenges, and skill gaps.

We launched a suite of Executive Diplomas into diverse thematic areas, including, in no particular order, strategic leadership and change, future of work, digital innovation and entrepreneurship, decision making and analytics, strategy, and organisational change. The Warwick Leadership Pathways offer the flexibility for participants to pick and choose the courses from each of these areas of expertise to develop a bespoke programme that is tailored to their unique needs. So, rather than us telling potential candidates that this is what we offer, we ask our candidates to pick and choose what they think is relevant to their unique skill gaps and their organisations. All of our programmes with our Warwick Leadership Pathways are taught by world-class academics, professors of practice, and business leaders, but they also offer the pick-and-mix flexibility in order to enable executives to develop and create something that meets their expectations and requirements.

Who would be an ideal candidate for these stackable programmes?

I think a lot of executives can sometimes worry about stepping into academia and whether they’ll be able to meet the demands of an academic programme. But these stackable programmes are certainly not your typical academic programmes. They are theory-driven but problem- and practice-focused. So, an ideal candidate for these stackable programmes is someone who understands how the business environment works and has a passion for learning and a hunger to make an impact. We also welcome candidates who do not have the academic qualifications but are exceptional, with a proven ability to achieve. Equally important is the ability and willingness to come to the classroom with an open and curious mind.

However, if executives expect to come to the classroom for us to use our magic wand (which we don’t have) to make them even better at what they do, then that’s not going to happen. We’re looking for candidates who are ambitious, want to move up, don’t shy away from a challenge, and are willing and able to work hard to understand how to develop themselves and show others how to do it.

How is this different from your other executive education programmes?

I think what makes the Warwick Leadership Pathways distinctively different from everything else we offer is the immense amount of flexibility that’s embedded within the Pathways. Participants can pick and mix from very different themes, such as leadership, future of work, decision-making and analytics, digital innovation and entrepreneurship, and strategy and organisational change to create something that meets their learning needs and plugs skills gaps. In addition, there is flexibility in the way that you can study the programmes. Typically, most of our executive offerings are either short full-time programmes or much longer part-time programmes, but the Warwick Leadership Pathways give the flexibility to our executives to decide how fast or how slow they can study. So, for example, they can study one postgraduate award today or this year, or they can come back next year to build on their qualifications with a stackable approach. They completely define the pace for their personal and professional development learning pathway. So, the Warwick Leadership Pathways offer a fully flexible framework that allows executives to design their own leadership development journey at a pace that works for them and their organisations.

Could you elaborate on the structure and flexibility offered within the Warwick Leadership Pathways for executives seeking to upskill while balancing their professional commitments?

The Warwick Leadership Pathways enable executives to pick and choose what areas of expertise they would like to study to support them with their personal career ambitions and business goals. They can tailor their qualification by completing any four postgraduate awards from our selection of specialised subject areas to gain an Executive Diploma in Advanced Management. They also have the option to pick four postgraduate awards from one subject area to achieve a subject-specific Executive Diploma.

We really want to give executives the ultimate flexibility to balance their personal life and work commitments alongside their study, so they also have the option to stack their qualification by applying for a single postgraduate award at a time.

Your research also often intersects with healthcare systems and organisations. How does this knowledge translate into leadership development within the business context? 

Healthcare organisations are increasingly characterised as knowledge-based, professionalised organisations whereby knowledge workers, like doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, increasingly exercise leadership without being in formal leadership roles. In other words, leadership in healthcare organisations and systems can come from knowledge workers anywhere in the organisation or the system and it doesn’t always matter whether they hold a leadership position. As a result, leadership development must empower these knowledgeable experts and abandon more conventional leadership development approaches that tend to concentrate power at the top of the company. Our own research shows that healthcare organisations and systems create radically different and diverse contexts, where professional status and managerial authority are both evident and critical for leadership development interventions to work. This contextual detail necessitates a different approach to leadership development that considers the particular needs of their organisations, as well as their professionalised nature. This, in my opinion, is also transferable to the business environment, which is likewise drastically changing and diversifying and is dependent more and more on knowledge workers to produce goods and services.

As the course director for several programmes, what do you have in mind for Warwick Executive Education in 2024?

One of our core values is restlessness and we always look at ways to push the boundaries of executive education. Following the creation of the Warwick Leadership Pathways, we are launching our new Accelerator MBA this year. The Accelerator MBA is a part of a new suite of MBA and executive courses that gives early to mid-career managers, business executives, and professionals greater autonomy over their professional and educational growth, without taking a significant amount of time away from work. Learning is taking place both online and face to face at The Shard in London, which is home to our Executive MBA and Executive Education. We’re excited to welcome our first cohort of the programme in March 2024.

More broadly, and in alignment with our core values, we challenge, we embrace different perspectives, and we think creatively to expand on our executive education programmes and delivery approaches to better serve our communities and clients by developing better leaders who will advance society. Watch this space.

To find out more about the Warwick Leadership Pathways visit: https://www.wbs.ac.uk/courses/executive-education/pathways/

Executive Profile

Dimitrios Spyridonidis

Dimitrios Spyridonidis is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Innovation and studies healthcare systems and organisations. He has taught leadership and leadership development around the globe including UK, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, South Africa, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

At WBS, Dimitrios is the Programme Director of the Executive MBA, Accelerator MBA and the Executive Diploma in Strategic Leadership & Change. 

Dimitrios’ core research interests are Leadership and Innovation. His research has been published in leading academic journals including Organization Studies, Public Administration and Human Relations and is the lead editor of a 2016 Special Issue on Translational Research on the International Journal of Management Review.

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