Today I’m going to tell you about a tool that will turbocharge your own development as a leader, the case study method, but with a twist that I’ll explain below. The usual format of a management case study was developed by Harvard Business School, which has no lectures, just real-life situations to analyze, solve and learn from.

Now, I admit that sometimes I feel sorry for the poor soul in the case who doesn’t know as much as I do, but most of the time I’m just as baffled as he or she is and I breathe a sigh of relief that I’m not the one in the hot seat. It’s far less stressful to be an arm-chair coach!

Well, I had to slide out of the arm-chair and climb on to the hot seat during my doctoral studies. In the Christian leadership track of Gordon-Conwell’s Doctor of Ministry program, they have taken the case study method and adapted it so that you are your own case study. Instead of reading about some other poor soul’s problems, I had to feature my own! Each year I had to select a real unresolved issue, write it up and present it so the cohort could pick me apart for a couple of hours. I know what it is like to be in the hot seat and I can say from experience that the most daring case study of all is…you!

Since this blog is called Christian Leadership Reflections, I’d like to help you get started reflecting on your own leadership by giving this overview of how to write a self-referential case study.

How to write a case study about yourself

1. Pick a real-life situation you are faced with right now.

It must involve you in your leadership role and you must be responsible for what happens next. For example, in one of my cases I selected a meeting I led that did not go as well as I would have liked. The subject of the meeting would likely make an interesting case too, but to make it a leadership case the story had to focus on my actions as a leader in the meeting.

If the situation you select has been drawn out over time, pick one particular episode (“the crisis” or “moment of decision”) as the focus of the case study (you can include the background when you get to step two). Once you have the episode, write it out as a story in the third person as though you are a dispassionate observer. Include any actual verbal exchanges that took place. Don’t do any analysis, just tell the story.

You might be tempted to skip this stage as unnecessary (after all, you already know the story), but writing the story is essential to removing yourself from your own perspective and detaching yourself from the situation. It was while writing the story that I consistently had the greatest insights. It forced me to think about it in moment-by-moment detail as I decided what to include. I usually wrote about six double-spaced pages and then with very tight editing got it down to two pages. The discipline of getting the whole story into two double-spaced pages forces you to focus on the essential elements of the story.

2. Provide any background that others would need to fully understand what it going on.

What led up to this event? Describe the environment and the backgrounds of the people involved. Provide whatever details you need so that anyone reading the case knows exactly what is going on (do this even if you never show the case to anyone – it still helps you). This might be another two double-spaced pages. It was while writing this part of the case that I had great insights into the contributing and causal events and circumstances. When I finished the background, I always had a better insight into my leadership even before moving to the analysis. When you are done the background, your role as the narrator is finished. The background to my meeting case included the (largely self-imposed) pressures I was facing from several fronts that were quite unrelated to the meeting but which were on my mind.

3. Now you do the exegetical work – understanding the situation as it happened.

At this point you switch roles from the author to the analyst, so your analysis must be based entirely on what is written, not what you remember. Identify the issues, the turning and decision points in the story,  and do the same kind of exegetical work you do in sermon preparation. Look for themes, compare and contrast the characters and so on. Also pay attention to personal traits and behaviours. What motivations are apparent? Compare what people say to what they do.

4. Next comes the hermeneutical work.

Now that you understand what happened in the event, the question becomes what the event means today in terms of what the star of the case should do next. Start by writing a rich colourful statement summarizing everything you learned about the leader in the exegetical portion of the case and your understanding of what the real issue is (which might be very different from what you thought it was when you selected the critical situation). In my example, I wrote “This case is about a CEO who genuinely wants to live up to his ideal leadership style but who fails to do so under conditions of stress.” I should say that this statement is not as colourful as my faculty advisor would accept. I did this particular case on my own, but I’m sure he would add about ten adjectives, such as “middle-aged, male, new, optimistic….” The benefit of having so many adjectives is it gives you many choices about which aspect of the leader’s quandary to research. From this statement one could take many avenues of research, such as the role of temperament or gender in leadership.

Note also that this statement generalizes the issue so you can apply the solution in other situations as well. This is very, very important because it prevents you from too narrow a focus. You will come back to the specific case in the next step. For now, you are researching a category of problem rather than a specific problem.

Now you are ready, based on the rich statement, to define the key researchable issue. Rather than temperament or gender, my researchable issue was how to align action with intention. Once you have a topic to research, set aside the specifics of the case and hit the books and journals to find out everything you can that will answer the research question. As a Christian leader you will also do biblical-theological research.

In this particular case, my research led me to some fascinating work by Argyris and Schön about espoused theories versus theories-in-use, and double-loop learning. They coined the term Action Science to describe their model.

5. Finally, take the research results and apply them to the situation in the case.

Now you can get back to the specifics of the case. Is the leader on the right course or should a change be made? You can either work on solving the case yourself (you’ll be amazed at how objectively you can pick apart your own performance) or  you can give it to a group of peers for other perspectives. I’ve done it both ways and both work well.

Congratulations! When you are finished you should know something you didn’t know before. You have learned from your own experience and research and are now better equipped to resolve the critical situation!

Thoughts on The most daring case study of all

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An exploration of Christian ministry leadership led by CCCC's CEO John Pellowe