Musing on Leadership Development

I sometimes get a little dazed with all of the clamor about leaders, leadership development, the importance of leadership and the like. Jillion’s of books, models, TED talks, webinars, thought leaders expounding, etc. What does it all mean? What is the message? 

I think it boils down to the fact that leaders determine what happens. Everything we see, know, and experience is (or was) made up. There are extant environmental conditions and facts, and someone gives meaning to them based on their beliefs, values, and personal history, and they envision what’s next and make decisions on how to go about manifesting that—enrolling human, financial, and natural resources, creating a strategy and approach, and leading the action that will make it happen. They make it up…

All the while having to make decisions on the fly as unexpected events ensue, false assumptions are revealed, the game gets changed by emerging factors, and complex interactions between the environment and the resources create unintended/unforeseen outcomes and consequences. 

Since these various leaders are making up our culture, society, economy, quality of life, success and failure, and all-important market cap on our stocks, quite a bit depends on who they are, their qualifications, and the excellence of their judgment and decisions.

Leadership has been a growing theme for many decades. The focus used to be on the science of management, with efficiency experts, and management trainings. As management theory and practice became embedded as an established component of organizational practice, the emphasis shifted to the art of leadership. 

Art is a bit more elusive, and the pursuit of it has spurred the development of multifarious systems of definition, codification, and evaluation, with questionnaires, profiles, competency training, and a Greek diner menu of ways to go about it. Corporations have their leadership development programs, with different curriculum for various levels, from executives to high potentials, to training for new hires on the fast track. 

How does one train and evaluate about something (leadership) that is about doing what hasn’t been done before? How does a leader learn how to resonate with where the collective led want to go? All this is happening in an environment of accelerated change, where the half life of learned skills is becoming shorter and shorter, and where our mental models are becoming outdated more quickly, requiring agility, self-awareness, understanding of the emerging surroundings, and being able to act with incomplete information. It requires a new type of consciousness for leaders. Creativity and intuition are important traits—connecting with an inner knowing.

In leadership development programs there is a growing trend to create experiential situations that simulate/emulate the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous) environment that the leaders will be navigating on the job. There is a lot of talk about helping them get “comfortable with being uncomfortable”. We’re transitioning from an approach based around problem solving and planning where carefully thinking things out is supposed to reduce uncertainty, to a world where progress is made by actively engaging with uncertainty and rapidly adapting as the results of that engagement reveal themselves, requiring elevated levels of leadership agility.

In the leadership development training process this means developing skills like using a clear vision that guides judgments and decisions, clear direction and ongoing communication as situations unfold, flexibility in adapting plans, not relying on past solutions to address current situations, and taking the occasional leap of faith. There is also a lot of thought that networks are more effective in a VUCA environment than hierarchies, where interconnections and interdependencies based on the unique situation have the speed, agility, and access to knowledge and information to act more successfully.

These types of skills are not easily taught in a traditional classroom training situation. The emerging approach is to complement concept training, mentoring and coaching, interactions with senior leaders, 360 evaluations and personality assessments, and other elements with action learning with cross-functional groups that is debriefed and coached along the aspects of leadership referred to above. This development needs to be reinforced and supported over time, and not be a “one and done”, got my diploma mentality. 

With the imposing responsibility of creating our future in their hands, the emerging leaders need support in their personal transformation into their leadership potential that will provide the framework for your organizations transformation(s).

Paul Kwiecinski