From South Africa to BYU

As a child growing up in South Africa during apartheid, Curtis LeBaron, associate professor of organizational leadership and strategy, was exposed to the circumstances and attitudes that defined the era.

With age, LeBaron came to realize the impact apartheid had on his thinking about race relations first while living for a time in Canada and then again in South Africa as a missionary.

“I came to more fully understand the injustices and the horrible violence that apartheid was on people, both body and spirit,” LeBaron says. “I grew to love people that I had formerly been racially estranged from. I learned a lot from the people that I was serving and learned to love them a great deal.”

Curtis LeBaron

Curtis LeBaron

LeBaron’s introspection eventually led him to the study of how people use language to communicate and influence others. He went on to earn a master’s degree in organizational communication at the University of Utah and a PhD in language and social interaction at the University of Texas at Austin.

“All of my research falls under the umbrella of the question, ‘How do we create the realities that we reside in?’” LeBaron says. “That relates directly to my South African experience.”

LeBaron now teaches a leadership class for MBA students at BYU and specializes in video-based research. His research methods are unique—he films and analyzes situations that people don’t usually get permission to video-record, where communication is key. For example, LeBaron has done video-based research on therapy groups, architects, surgical teams, job interviews, top management teams, and more. LeBaron also had the opportunity to analyze recordings of FBI interrogations from a department with a history of getting confessions from innocent people.

“The question was how on earth they get confessions from people who are innocent,” LeBaron says. “The answer is that they create realities in which the suspects feel like they have no other option but to confess.”

LeBaron’s work has helped numerous organizations with the ways they communicate, especially leaders who create sense and meaning out of inherently ambiguous situations. LeBaron says he is able to get unique insights with his filming method and enjoys his research.

“When I sit down and start watching people interact on video, for me there’s nothing more interesting in the world,” LeBaron says. “I feel like I’m watching the most intriguing, multidimensional game of social chess where people say things and move and maneuver in ways that advance themselves.”

Drawing on his research and life experiences, these are three pieces of advice that LeBaron says he has for MBA students:

  1. Take control of your environment.

“If you ever find yourself in a situation or context that you’re unhappy with, look for ways that you might be actually creating the context that you dislike. If you’re ever faced with a problem you’re having a hard time solving, you might ask yourself how it is that you’re helping to create that problem in the first place and how might that change.”

  1. Remember that you only live once.

“If there’s something you want to do, you need to go after it. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you need to change it, because we only get one shot at this.”

  1. Don’t underestimate the power of face-to-face interaction.

“In an age of digital communication, I would encourage all leaders and professionals to not underestimate the power of face-to-face interaction. Any time leaders have really wanted to make a difference in the minds of people, they’ve done it face-to-face.”