May 1st, 2012

Leading the way: A program for the new century

The world today has become more complex and leaders must find a way to adapt to the changes, all the while being sensitive to the same cultural, emotional and economic issues that have always been part of the mix.

This fall, the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology will initiate the first leadership program rooted primarily in psychology with ten students from across the world coming together to learn how to navigate and inspire in the world today. The four-year Doctor of Psychology in Leadership Psychology program was created by Erik Gregory, Ph.D., who is the executive director of the Media Psychology Research Center of Boston. Gregory has held appointments with the National Cancer Institute in Hawaii, the Spencer Foundation, the University of Chicago and served as a clinical intern at the Tavistock Institute in London.

Gregory spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the new program and about his own journey toward becoming what he calls a 21st century psychologist.

Q: You have been involved in a number of areas: positive psychology, leadership psychology, cancer research, media research, working with children. How do you define yourself?

A: As a psychologist first and foremost, a 21st century psychologist. This means that I am taking the application of psychology beyond the clinical and counseling realms to apply it to areas we have not traditionally considered, areas that go beyond the application of mental health intervention.

Q: Tell us about the program you created at MSPP?

A: It has been developed to work with current leaders, those who want to support leaders, and followers who are interested in creating constructive social change. Our group will be 7-10 students from around the world. They have a residency here in Boston for four days at the beginning of the program and then they do their work online concurrently with the jobs they are holding in government, finance, non-profits, for-profits, higher education and health care. We will also send faculty once a year to geographic clusters – one in Europe and one on the East and West Coasts. It is a distributed model of learning. It is a program that allows students to apply immediately what they are learning in leadership to their worksite.

These students are all dedicated to creating socially constructive change rooted in positive psychology and doing it in a way that they don’t get literally or figuratively assassinated in the process. We have seen throughout history that when leaders make change too quickly they get a strong pushback and it can often be at the expense of their leadership.

Q: Why do we need to create 21st century leaders?

A: The 21st century leader needs to respond to complex challenges and to the adaptive issues we are facing in the world politically, economically, socially, and environmentally. Because in the 20th century, I don’t think we did it that well.

I want to distinguish that leadership is different from management. Management is important but it tends to focus on technical approaches and leadership is about mobilizing resources to make change.

Humans ultimately resist change and we need leaders who can create a holding environment as we are making these changes in order to adapt.

This is an approach that is longer lasting – this is not about a quick intervention that makes you feel better. We can become better leaders or those who support leaders or those who are followers.

Q: Followers?

 A: We tend to forget about followers and a leader needs a follower in order to function. These are the people who are doing the mobilizing to follow the vision of a leader and that’s a pretty important role also. Not everyone can be a leader nor do we want everyone to be a leader.

Another thing we focus on is narrative and storytelling. Human beings are storytelling creatures and we mobilize ourselves through the vision of a leader. For example, as a president, Ronald Reagan was a tremendous storyteller and was able, through those stories, to mobilize resources and stakeholders to join his vision. This is part of where the media piece comes in – leaders have to rely more and more on media to get their message across to their potential followers.

Q: And that ties in with your work at the Media Psychology Research Center.

A: Media is modern day storytelling and it can be used for great social good. However, it is also used for purposes that are not so useful – making us feel bad about ourselves to sell a product or targeting vulnerable populations. The Media Center uses positive psychology in order to create socially constructive media.

Q: Your own journey to this leadership program has covered a variety of areas. You have worked with cancer research and with children’s programming also.

A: I started my career in public health in Hawaii trying to reduce the risk of cancer and promote screenings with native populations. I found that through listening to the stories of the people we wanted to help as a group that I got the greatest sense of how to create the interventions. When I left Hawaii, I came to Harvard where I had a chance to work with Gerald Lesser, one of the creators of Sesame Street. He brought to me a sense of how listening to stories and creating stories could be incredibly useful.

I did my clinical training at the Tavistock Institute in London where I worked with refugee children and their families in the morning and in the afternoon I had the opportunity to work with the cast of this new series of films coming out called Harry Potter. I was working with some of the children and their families on how to adjust to newfound fame – all of a sudden their images were on chocolate bars and books and billboards and everything imaginable. I always had a sense that they were going to do fine and I think they really did.

Q: So you have this wide range of experiences and opportunities and somehow all these pieces are coming together within the leadership psychology program?

A: The threads have been there, the threads of psychology, social responsibility and giving back. So, all the work I’ve done in media, positive psychology, public health, leadership psychology – it’s all grounded in human behavior and trying to reach potential but it is also about orienting us towards giving a collective contribution rather than a fixation on just the self, the “me, me, me.” We need to get back to looking at the collective “we.” 

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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