An opportunity approach will always be a powerful way to think about leadership development. For example, imagine if your organisation's leaders were 5 percent better at, say, communicating vision with impact or leading for innovation.
But I also find it is helpful to think about leadership and leadership development from a risk perspective. Within most organisations – unless unusually blessed! – there will be a percentage of poor leaders. Assuming these leaders are at middle management level, they are likely to have strong technical skills, but may have had little or no (a) experience leading people, (b) interest in leading people or (c) haven't had the benefit of leadership development in their career to date. So what are the risks of not investing in their leadership development?
"In a world where complex problems are more common, the leader is a facilitator rather than an expert, offering a compass instead of a map."
Dr Jane Gunn
At the very real risk of stereotyping, take the technical expert promoted into a leadership role who performs their part of the process according to established rules and norms? Only taking accountability for their part of the process being correct and accepting that that's just how it has to be around here. This leads to significant levels of risk that the best result for the organisation is not achieved.
What happens instead if these people move to a situation where they connect themselves and the people around them with purpose? For example, better citizen service, a better financial result, or better patient outcomes? What if they are able to plan a future which is different and better, take accountability for achieving or not achieving the result, work across boundaries and processes, and challenge the established rules and myths when they don't assist the outcome? Where they move from 'no – the rules/process won't let us' to 'yes, if..'.
These people are most likely to be desperately avoiding conversations about performance and failing to provide clarity to their teams. Or worse, actively demotivating their teams by taking all the credit, taking on the work that their teams should be doing, being openly angry or aggressive, or accepting mediocrity in outcomes. What about if they address performance concerns instead? What if they speak of their own teams with pride? What if they are focused on building the capacity of their teams to be the best they can be?
If you accept the position that (a) the risks of poor leadership are great and (b) investing in leadership is important, that leads to the next question: Can leadership capability be developed? Yes. Is it easy or quick? No. But there are a few fundamental principles for leadership development that actually gets results.
It takes time for ideas to make sense. The lessons learnt in leadership programs often don't resonate until a particular experience occurs. The power of leadership development programs is in planting the seeds that may take a long time to grow and, as far as practical, giving time for this to happen during the course of the learning program.
As opposed to a performance mindset, a learning mindset prepares people to experiment with new behaviours and approaches as well as from what they learn on the job and from those around them. Not whether they succeed or fail, but what they learn.
This is increasingly being recognised. Learning how to recognise your response to something and be able to catch yourself and respond differently is a fundamental skill that very few of us are born with. But you can learn it through the self-insight gained through leadership capability diagnostics, enhanced by peer and subordinate feedback mechanisms (360⁰) and with the assistance of skilled coaching and mentoring.
Leadership development is fundamentally about building the culture your organisation needs for success. In my view, this is where leadership learning starts. Sure, there are a range of leadership fundamentals, but what is your organisation's vision for the leadership it needs to succeed in its strategy?
In essence, leadership is about a practice; and there are two important ramifications of thinking about it this way. The first is that we can choose it, rather than have it delegated to us. Secondly, we can practice it, so we can get better. The risks of poor leadership are significant; certainly as damaging in the public sector as the private sector, and arguably, with even greater ramifications for the nation and its citizens. Leadership development initiatives, well designed and executed, assist with the practice of leadership. We can leave it to chance but I would argue that is a risk not worth taking.
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