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Leadership Development Programs

Leadership Development Revisited: A Call to Action

  • March 2024

There are few topics in business as widely described as leadership. As long as people have led or been led, there has been the need to describe what good leadership is and what can be expected of good leaders. And for a long time, the capacity to be a leader was mostly seen as a character trait. Either you'd been carved from the wood that makes a good leader, or you hadn’t. There was little interest (or capacity to imagine) that a leader could also be developed. Leadership development on a personal level was a little-known topic. It was mostly a description of skills and techniques to be applied, but the foundation had to be there. Most prominently, this might be seen in Machiavelli’s „Il Principe“, at its time a widely received and acclaimed guide to becoming a successful leader. And interestingly, today this kind of leadership is seen as particularly fraught, as it is entirely focused on the outcome and neglects any moral principles on how to get there.

Today, there is a myriad of books available on leadership and how to become a good leader. So many in fact, that now there is a notion that everyone, if only trained properly, can become a good leader. In a way, the balance has shifted from one extreme, i.e. a leader is born and cannot be developed, to the other, where everyone can learn to become a leader, regardless of the foundation of his or her personality. Now, we all have learned that extremes rarely represent reality and in any case are of little help when navigating the path to anywhere, including the path to good leadership. So, what should leadership development look like? 

It is interesting to see that most organizations have neglected that this balance of personality and skill actually exists and therefore does not cater for it in the leadership development offered. If you look at most of the large corporations which have quite impressive leadership development programs, they are mostly focused on skills, tools, and techniques and how to apply them. Rarely is the person who should apply these skills, tools, and techniques taken into account. In many organizations, the old leadership narrative is still alive: that you have to be carved from the wood that makes a good leader before leadership training can actually start. You might recall sentences such as „we're all professionals here“, „we don't need to be friends, we're just colleagues“, or „we're all paid for this, therefore get over it“ whenever someone is faced with a particularly difficult or challenging situation. The embedded message in these macho sentences is that the person unable to navigate this challenging situation right away disqualifies himself or herself as a leader and therefore does not merit specific support. The unasked question is: why is a situation perceived as challenging or difficult, and is it objectively so or only in the eyes of the beholder? What might be very challenging or even threatening for one person can be a coffee chat for another.

Now, if today there are thousands of books available on good leadership and if the balance between personality traits and skills & techniques is known – why a call to action for a new way of leadership development? Simply, because most organizations – even those with elaborate leadership development programs – have not found a way to integrate both sides of this polarity into their programs. More often than not, leadership development is still a training on skills and techniques and if at all, personality development is reserved for the most senior levels of leadership. We believe this sequence should be reversed.

Let us share an example which might support our case: I assume that there is no leader who hasn't gone through at least one course of training on how to give (or receive) feedback. Most leaders we've been working with have gone through such training multiple times. Now, why is it then that most organizations are still pretty bad at giving (or receiving) open, candid, timely and constructive feedback? It is not because their leaders have not been trained. It is because in spite of their training they still don't feel that they should, could, or are entitled to give such feedback – or indeed embrace feedback given to them without feeling personally challenged. Ask yourself how often you have avoided a conversation that should have taken place? I would be able to name multiple occasions where I know in hindsight that I should have spoken up but decided not to. Why? Because I was dreading the reaction of the other person. Now, that feeling which prevented me from speaking up is not linked to the situation. It is linked to my perception of the situation, of my role in it, and my relationship to the people around me. 

We all build narratives to make sense of the world. And these narratives entail the questions of: „Who am I? Who are others? What am I to do? How do I relate to the world?“ which enables or hinders us to interact with the people around us. To be able to answer these questions, we must be self-aware. And that's not an easy thing to be. Tasha Eurich wrote an entire book about it and makes the case that most people who claim to be self-aware – are actually not. The self-awareness they claim is also built around the narrative they live in. Which means, they have a distorted view of themselves and of others. 

So, what has all this to do with leadership development? From our experience and perspective: a lot. If the soil into which we want to plant the seeds of skills, tools and techniques of leadership is not properly prepared, the seeds will most likely not grow and bear fruit. I admit that this may sound a little fluffy. And some senior leaders might be afraid that we will lead them through the woods barefooted or make them sit on a cushion for a day until they can't feel their legs. None of that is required (although you might be surprised how helpful these measures can be). The road to self-awareness can be taught and doesn't have to be as alien as it may initially sound. 

We have been working with large organizations as well as mid-sized companies and family-owned businesses to help them revisit their leadership development programs and include a sequence on self-awareness. Their feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Leaders, regardless of their level of seniority and experience, benefit enormously from being given the time, space and safe surroundings to reflect on how they have become who they are today, what has supported their progress and where and how past experiences might have got in their way. Once they can embrace themselves fully, which also includes aspects of themselves they dislike and try to hide from themselves and the world around them, they can develop the capacity to stay balanced even in the most challenging situations. 

I admit that this might sound slightly esoteric, but believe me, this is what happens when you become self-aware. Leaders who know themselves can build the capacity to connect with others and deal with personally challenging situations. Personally challenging situations are those where we do not know the outcome – and in the times we live in now we encounter quite a few! Not knowing the outcome triggers stress and our stress-response is the most visible and prominent capacity to be a good leader. 

So, leadership development should start with the person of the leader. The way he or she looks at the world, what resources he or she can draw on and how he or she relates to other people – even under extreme pressure – should be at the root of any leadership development program. And just to be clear: to act meaningfully in high-stakes situations, you still need skills, tools, and techniques. To train them remains important for any person aspiring to a leadership role. They are just not enough to develop successful leaders.

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