Graham School News

Dick Axelrod on Learning to Listen and Involve Others as a Leader

Philip Baker

Richard H. Axelrod

“What makes the Master of Science in Threat and Response Management (MScTRM) different is the students,” says Dick Axelrod, who has taught Crisis Leadership and Management for the program since its inception in 2008. “We have lawyers, police officers, military, doctors, nurses, and Argonne employees and they all bring their leadership ideas and experiences into the classroom. So many rich and diverse perspectives make for very lively and thought-provoking discussions.”

Since founding the Axelrod Group in 1981 with his wife Emily, Axelrod has advanced the field of organizational development while working with some of the country’s largest organizations. Using concepts and tools he has developed through experience and elaborated on in three books— the most recent of which, Let’s Stop Meeting Like This, was published in 2014—he provides organizations with frameworks for engaging people in the critical issues their organizations face.

“What’s important to us is figuring out how to involve people in change,” he says. “Work we did in the 1990s, for example, upended ideas of organizational change that were standard then. Rather than the classic steering team made up of 10–12 people who design change programs and then try to sell them to the rest of the organization, we wanted to see if we could involve 100 or even 200 people in the change process. That type of high-participation, high-involvement change provides the urgency and energy to spark creativity and align people around shared goals.” 


“We have lawyers, police officers, military, doctors, nurses, and Argonne employees and they all bring their leadership ideas and experiences into the classroom. So many rich and diverse perspectives make for very lively and thought-provoking discussions.”


Axelrod outlined these ideas in his 2010 award-winning book Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations.

With leaders serving as important levers for enacting participation, Axelrod has pioneered strategies that leaders across corporations, government, and nonprofits can use to more effectively involve and motivate others toward successful outcomes. Laid out in his 2005 book You Don’t Have to Do It Alone, he breaks the involvement process down into five steps that focus on determining who to involve and understanding how to keep those contributors energized and committed until the work is completed.

“Part of the surprise when I was invited to create a leadership course for the MScTRM program was how the key concepts translate across contexts,” he says. “Many of the ideas translate one-on-one from the organizational context to emergency management. It’s not just that the core elements remain the same—the importance of vision, teamwork, and building trust—but what’s particularly important is making sure these elements are in place prior to the event, whether it’s organizational change or an emergency management crisis.” 

Axelrod uses case studies in class to demonstrate how past crises might have been averted or differently handled had effective leadership principles been in place prior to the calamitous event. Taking the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster as an example, he notes that there were Morton Thiokol and NASA employees who had voiced relevant concerns before the launch whose voices were not heard, while others had remained silent out of fear.


“So, in addition to the content and information students take from the class, they learn about themselves too. They’ll finish with a sense of who they are as leaders, where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and the concrete steps they’ll need to take in order to improve.”


“An essential challenge all leaders have to face involves creating an environment in which people can feel safe to speak their minds,” Axelrod says. “People also need to believe their concerns will be heard and taken seriously. This sort of confidence is something leaders can instill through demonstrating their own interest in learning and being influenced by what others bring to the table.”

It is a skill Axelrod brings to the classroom when teaching Crisis Leadership and Management, where he encourages high levels of participation and lots of discussion. Students share lessons from their own lives both to enrich the classroom experience and also as a way to learn about their own leadership approaches. As an example of the latter, students use a psychometric instrument to give them insight into the types of leaders they are and why they work well with some people and not so well with others. These are lessons they then put directly into practice while carrying out a group project that serves as the course’s backbone.

“So, in addition to the content and information students take from the class, they learn about themselves too,” Axelrod says. “They’ll finish with a sense of who they are as leaders, where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and the concrete steps they’ll need to take in order to improve.”