Enhancing Leadership Learning and Dialogue With Visual Explorer

By Dan Jenkins and Charles J. (Chuck) Palus

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Dan Jenkins Photo  Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan  @Dr_Leadership.

Chuck Palus Charles J. (Chuck) Palus, PhD, is a Senior Fellow and faculty member in Research at the Center for Creative Leadership. He studies, teaches, and develops leadership as a relational process in interdependent systems. Within this perspective he specializes in vertical development and leadership culture transformation. He is co-founder of CCL Labs, a community-based innovation laboratory.

Visual Explorer

Conversations that are both deep and insightful, and safe can be hard to facilitate in the classroom or training space. Visual Explorer (VE) is an image-based tool that effectively facilitates powerful conversations around facilitator-selected topics. Developed by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), VE is a deck — available in both physical and digital formats — of photographic images from which people choose specific ones to represent and share their ideas and perspectives. The typical outcome is increased depth of personal insight and greater appreciation of the diverse insights of others. Correspondingly, VE supports mutual empathic relationships while creating learning and energy in the classroom — VE is both fun and serious, a powerful combination for learning.

The origins of VE are in the Leading Creatively research and design initiative at the CCL (Palus & Horth, 2002) which used the motifs and competencies of artistic perception and art-making to understand and support effective leadership in the face of complex challenges. Guiding this work was the 4MAT Learning Model (McCarthy, 1996) which shows that optimal learning is an active, experiential process integrating both right-mode (visual, intuitive, holistic) and left-mode (verbal, abstract, analytical) cognition (Kolb, 2014). A key insight is that vivid metaphoric connections are highly useful in the social construction of shared meaning (Lakoff & Johnson, 2008) or “co-inquiry” (Palus & Horth, 1996, 2002). This work led to the discovery that a portable deck of photographs selected for their potential metaphoric and aesthetic resonance is a powerful tool for creating effective dialogue around any kind of complex topic. Testing and evolution of this deck of images in a wide variety of global contexts became VE.

Utility and Intentionality of VE in Leadership Education

VE is effective in leadership learning because of its foundation in discussion- and art-based pedagogies. As described above, the metaphoric connections are useful in constructing shared meaning, what Palus and Horth (1996, 2002) refer to as “co-inquiry”, a dialogical, creative, and collaborative process where leadership exists as meaning making in a community of practice. That is, through co-inquiry, leadership is “people making sense of events and circumstances within a community, as the community invents and pursues its activities. It is the creation and maintenance of ideas, feelings, and actions about what is real, right, important, practical, and possible within a community” (Palus & Horth, 1996, p. 54). In short, co-inquiry is the process of people coming together to conduct the meaning-making aspects of complex work in a deliberate manner (Palus & Horth, 1996, p. 56). Likewise, discussion transforms students into “cocreators of knowledge” (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, p. 22) where they are empowered to construct and disclose deeper meaning and enrich understanding for all participants (Eeds & Wells, 1991).

Further, through art, the arrangement of conditions intended to make us perceive some part of the world more directly through our senses and less through our concepts and ideas about this part of the world, its aesthetic function “puts us in a situation where we get the chance to examine our felt sense of some part of our experience” (Springborg, 2010, p. 245). This arrangement stimulates new and different possibilities, e.g., arrangements of leadership elements (knowledge, skills, abilities, attitudes, behaviors, etc.) that may be surprising, intriguing, provocative, aesthetically pleasing, or in some other way capture our attention and place it in our senses (Guthrie & Jenkins, 2018). In this way, the use of metaphor cards like VE, which are constructivist-interpretivist in nature—that is, they allow each learner to connect in their own particular way and thus have divergent generalizability, i.e., the individual who selected the image may see one thing, whereas others may see something else (Taylor & Ladkin, 2009)—integrate discussion- and arts-based pedagogy and enhance leadership learning in the following ways: (a) by helping develop visual literacy development through important nonverbal messages regarding culture values, norms, and expectations (Kelly & Kortegast, 2018); (b) supporting critical reflection and experiential learning since the meaning ascribed to images are socially constructed and thus we need to be “concerned with the perception and the meanings attributed to them” (Prosser, 2011, p. 479); and (c) providing leadership educators with an image-based tool for facilitating creative conversations and deep dialogues on almost any leadership topic (Guthrie & Jenkins, 2018) that results helping everyone see the issue from new perspectives and delve into the implicit ways in which individuals perceive situations (Taylor & Ladkin, 2009).

Dialogue at its best is a way of creating profound levels of shared meaning because it asks individuals to take in others’ ideas and feelings as if they are worthy both on their own terms and in relation to one’s own terms (Palus & Drath, 2001). Through the process of a mediating object in the middle and under the right conditions, such as an image from the VE, we can greatly enhance the experience of dialogue. Seeing that discussion-based pedagogies are the most widely used instructional strategy in leadership education, regardless of academic level or modality (Jenkins, 2016, 2018), pairing discussion with VE is like turbo for discussions in leadership education programs.


We have both used VE in various leadership education contexts. One example application of VE that is appropriate for the Leadership Development component of Guthrie and Jenkins’s (2018) “Leadership Learning Framework” (LLF) and supports the human and interpersonal aspects of leadership learning, is a life-journey exercise in which participants select cards portraying their own past, present, and desired future. The selected images are laid out as a timeline, which provides a scaffold to tell one’s own story, and to respond empathetically to the stories of others. The purpose of this activity is to support personal development as a process of learning from experience and envisioning the future. Deeper and more trusting relationships among the group are a typical result. This activity lends itself to digital platforms in which image selection and sharing is done with any of a number of web-based virtual learning applications or systems.

A second example application of VE which is appropriate for the Leadership Knowledge component of the LLF (Guthrie & Jenkins, 2018) and supports the acquisition of information and critical insights about leadership for learners is a learning activity where students select a card that represents one of the major leadership theories covered during the mid-point of a semester-long leadership theory course (e.g., Transformational, Servant, Situational, Followership, etc.) and teach the concept to their peers. The purpose of this activity is to support students’ cognitive understanding, mental processing, and application of the content-knowledge from the course. Students often associate the leadership theories with the images selected well beyond the learning activity and are more mindful of situations, groups, or individuals portraying the components of each theory. For example, a learning activity using the Leadership Metaphor Explorer tool (available at https://solutions.ccl.org/Leadership-Metaphor-Explorer-Facilitators-Guide-Set) — a variation of the VE — helped students better understand the components of the Social Change Model of Leadership Development (Komives & Wagner, 2017). One student who participated in the learning activity explained how they had seen the model numerous times and were “exhausted with the three circles” (referring to the visual representation of the model), noting that, “I now associate the component of Controversy with Civility with this image, can explain it to my peers better, and will remember it forever this way”.

A final important note about these learning activities stems from the facilitation and debriefing phases. We recommend following the “star model” of mediated dialogue which consists of three generic steps: (a) Constructing or selecting an object (e.g., a VE image) and charging it with meaning; (b) Sharing the object and its meaning with others; and (c) Opening the object and the meaning to inquiry, including the construction of shared meaning (Palus & Drath, 2001). Debriefing questions should reinforce the process of the activity and explore key topics or themes that emerged as well as how others’ insights or perspectives provided additional learning.

Final Thoughts

While the creation of VE began as a physical deck of images (available at https://solutions.ccl.org/tools/labs-ccl), the advent of online learning and growth of technology-enhanced leadership learning spawned the development of a digital VE (available at http://www.ccl-explorer.org/visual-explorer-special-edition-digital-images/). This growth into online learning formats also sparked the creation of the ValueAble Leader Project, a web-based app that helps us explore values, identify those that are most important, and consider how these values show up in our actions (https://valueableleaderproject.com/), and develop learning modules for leadership educators in higher education. Accordingly, whether your leadership learning outcomes include the exploration of values, ethics, strategy, group dynamics, or critical reflection, “putting something in the middle” (Palus & Drath, 2001) such as the collection of images in the VE in technology-enhanced or face-to-face environments enhances the ensuing dialogue. We invite you to please give these tools and try in your leadership programs and share your experience using them.

As a member of the ILA we are offering a 40% discount on the following products from the Center for Creative Leadership and Labs@CCL: (a) Visual Explorer: Special Edition (Postcard sized deck); (b) Transformations: Coaching Package (beta); and (c) Leadership Metaphor Explorer Facilitator’s Guide Set. To receive your discount, simply visit https://solutions.ccl.org/tools/labs-ccl and enter the code ILAP4P at checkout. For Leadership Metaphor Explorer visit https://solutions.ccl.org/Leadership-Metaphor-Explorer-Facilitators-Guide-Set and use the same code. Make your online purchase today! The code expires January 31, 2019.


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Eeds, M., & Wells, D. (1991). Talking, Thinking, and Cooperative Learning: Lessons Learned From Listening to Children Talk About Books. Social Education, 55, 134–137.

Guthrie, K. L. & Jenkins, D. M. (2018). The Role of Leadership Educators: Transforming Learning. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

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Jenkins, D. M. (2016). Teaching Leadership Online: An Exploratory Study of Instructional and Assessment Strategy Use. Journal of Leadership Education, 15(2), 129-149. Retrieved from http://journalofleadershiped.org/index.php/volume-15-issue-2/431-teaching-leadership-online-an-exploratory-study-of-instructional-and-assessment-strategy-use

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About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at pauseforpedagogy@ila-net.com

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. Her current role as an Educational Developer at York University involves supporting faculty in exploring and implementing innovative best practices for teaching and learning. Her doctoral work examines the relationship between professional identity development and communities of practice. Lisa also volunteers her time as the EDC Institute Coordinator for the Educational Developers' Caucus (EDC). Lisa can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.

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