by Steve Collins, Director of Training and Development Lead International USA

There is wonderful African proverb that says, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone, if you want to travel far, travel with others.”  The proverb communicates the truth about the importance of community.  The proverb also applies to leadership development. Although, it is more accurate to say if you want to learn leadership fast, you especially need to travel with others.

Learning Leadership

The need to learn leadership in community is true although leadership can be described by a few practices and is not a complicated process at all. Considering this, the World Economic Forum survey that shows 86% of respondents think there is a leadership crisis in the world today, seems a bit puzzling.  Clearly there is a missing link between comprehension and execution. Best selling writers Kouzes and Posner who gave us the classic, Leadership Challenge, attempt to offer a way forward in their latest book, Learning Leadership.  Building on their five practices of an “exemplary leader,” they identify five fundamentals needed for reaching your potential as a leader.

by Kouzes and Posner

The five fundamentals are:

  • Believe you can
  • Aspire to excel
  • Challenge yourself
  • Engage support
  • Practice deliberately

You are right to think these five practices could populate any self-help book. Fortunately, Kouzes and Posner write with deeper insight, provide research to back up their ideas, and offer practical application. So while the book provides the reader with an easy to understand formula, it also acknowledges implementation will not be easy.  One reason for the implementation challenge is because the book focuses largely on how an individual takes control of his leadership learning program.

The first three fundamental practices encourage us to look deep within ourselves to discover our true voice, to be “gritty” and “hardy,” and to take big risks.  While Kouzes and Posner specifically debunk the myth of the “self reliant” leader, they recognize that in many environments, it requires heroic individual effort to learn leadership. Even the fundamentals of “engage support” and “practice deliberately” put the onus on the individual to create the right learning environment.  

Organizations and Leadership

In many environments, it requires heroic individual effort to learn leadership.

The obvious question is if leadership is in such short supply why would organizations make it so difficult for individuals to learn leadership.  What keeps organizations from following the simple formula presented by Kouzes and Posner to create a culture of leadership?  The most likely explanation is that organizations are unwittingly contributing to the problem.  Many organizations promote their desire to invest in leaders and use all the right terminology but their underlying beliefs about leadership derail the leadership development process.  The result is that leadership continues to be about the limited few and not community property.

“Trickle down leadership”

To develop a leadership culture, organizations have to believe that the vast majority of their employees can continue to learn and improve throughout their careers. Imagine a leader announcing a bold and exciting vision for the future and then adding he believes only 20% of the team has the ability to grow in their capacities to meet the challenges of the future.  Unfortunately, that is the reality of how many organizations view leadership development.  A select few get the bulk of the investment with the hope that with their new improved leadership skills they will disseminate leadership best practices.  Certainly, the approach can work, but the more likely result is a concentration of leadership wealth rather than the distribution of it.

“One size fits all”

Leadership development efforts can also be diminished when well-meaning organizations seek to provide leadership development to as many people as possible.

Leadership development efforts can also be diminished when well-meaning organizations seek to provide leadership development to as many people as possible.  Research has failed to identify any one universal method that works best for everyone to learn a particular skill and that is certainly true in developing leadership skills.  We do know that learning happens best when people consistently engage in a learning style that works best for them.  Organizations can err on the side of offering a “buffet” approach with lots of options but little depth. They also can err on the “all in” approach where everyone gets exposure to the same content in a workshop or e-learning platform.  Both approaches can be effective as entry learning strategies but must allow participants to then customize their learning, to go deeper in understanding, application, and practice.  However, this can be an expensive proposition for companies so they opt to feel good about providing a starting point and then put the burden back on the individual to create a leadership development pathway. Not surprisingly, the organization ends up with a few exemplary leaders and a lot of frustrated followers.

“Heavy on performance, light on learning”

Most organizations spend considerable time determining how to provide performance feedback but struggle to provide learning feedback.   Performance goals aligned with well-structured work assignments offer a straightforward measurement approach for supervisors to render judgment.  Setting feedback goals and measurements around learning can be a bit more challenging because, as mentioned above, they require more customization and are harder to quantify.  However, learning feedback is a great way to broaden the impact of performance feedback and develop a trusting environment.

learning feedback is a great way to broaden the impact of performance feedback and develop a trusting environment.

A conversation about learning is naturally future-focused and invites the leader to a greater level of personal investment.  Being intentional in providing both performance and learning feedback overcomes the common problem highlighted in John Gardner’s insightful quote. “Pity the leader with the unloving critics and the uncritical lovers.”  Too often organizations view work performance as their responsibility but relegate learning and leadership development to personal responsibility.

“Leadership Evolution”

Some organizations appear to approach leadership development with a Darwinian design. They know that leaders get the opportunity to practice leadership everyday and believe that through an “evolution” process these leaders will keep the good leadership practices and allow the ineffective ones to fade away. Like any skill, leadership development requires consistent practice providing opportunities to refine strengths, improve on weaknesses, and meet new challenges.  The good news is that for many leadership assignments these opportunities come naturally every day. The bad news is that without intentionality, a leader will simply reinforce their existing habits.  Organizations that rely on the periodic leadership workshop approach are betting that an intense two day off-site workshop is going to overcome bad habits and create good ones.  Habit formation doesn’t work that way. The result is an organization full of leaders who can accurately describe effective leadership and even demonstrate it. But as Kouzes and Posner point out, the problem is the lack of frequency. To do something with great frequency requires making it a habit.  You can break bad habits and form good habits all by yourself but the probability is not high. If you surround yourself with good practitioners and receive frequent feedback, your odds improve greatly.  Organizations need to focus more on active intervention and less on passive evolution.

Hope for your Future

According to a Gallup poll of 27 million employees worldwide, “the single most important thing you can do to help ensure your future success is to find someone who has an interest in your development.” Organizations should rephrase this research finding to read, “the single most important thing our organization can do to help ensure our future is to be interested in the leadership development of our employees.”  The future generation of leaders is willing to do their part, but are the current generation of leaders willing to do theirs?

Update your Leadership Development Program

©2017 Lead International