This is part 3 of the 3×5 Leader Development Handbook. I encourage you to start with the introduction here if you have not yet.
One of the most critical lessons I learned as a junior officer and the first piece of advice I offer to young officers is: the Army won’t teach you everything you need to know to be successful in your next job. You need to demonstrate some initiative and do everything you can to learn key aspects of that next job on your own before you get there.
To be successful as a leader and as a leader developer, there must be a deliberate and routine effort toward self-development.
Self-Development Before Leader Development
Self-development is the second step in our leader development approach, pictured below. Before you can lead others, you must lead yourself well. More importantly, you can’t develop others if you’re not developing yourself. Consistently growing your own knowledge, skills, and abilities must occur before you can begin to do the same for the leaders around you. It’s about setting the example as a life-long learner for others and inspiring them to ultimately take responsibility for their own growth. While role-modeling does not necessarily equate to leader development (you can’t develop leaders only through your personal example), it is a critical first step for every leader developer.
Where Self-Development Fits in to Our Experiences
The U.S. Army asserts that development occurs in three distinct domains, offered in a Venn Diagram-based model. I believe this is the best way to convey where development occurs across our professional experiences and how they interact with one another. (Note: while the Army uses the word ‘domain,’ we will use the synonym, ‘realms,’ to use distinct language throughout the rest of the Handbook).
This simplified adaptation of the U.S. Army’s Leader Development Model reveals that development tends to occur in three realms. The operational realm regards all of the development that occurs while at work; it is essentially “on-the-job” training. This can include all of the lessons and new ways of thinking gained in your new duty position, leader development activities that your boss schedules, working with your peers and teammates, and so on. Institutional development, however, occurs during formal education or training that we engage in throughout our career. For U.S. Army officers, this includes Basic Officers Leader Course, Captains Career Course, and Command & General Staff College. For Army NCOs, that includes all of the schooling from Basic Leader’s Course to the Sergeants Major Academy. For non-military readers, this can include formal training events that your organization schedules for you to attend in order to improve skills and knowledge.
Self-development, then, is all of the learning activities that you personally engage in outside of routine work (operational experience) and specified education or training (institutional experience). More simply, as my friend, Franklin Annis, referenced in his article on the Field Grade Leader blog, self-development is essentially “choosing learning over non-learning activities.” This is as simple as choosing to listen to a podcast or audiobook over music while commuting. Or it can be reading a short article while eating lunch in your office over scrolling through a social media feed.
As the term itself reveals, self-development is fully self-initiated; it’s also unique to the individual leader. Self-development activities and approaches will look different from person to person. Ultimately, self-development is about taking responsibility to fill the gaps operational and institutional learning don’t cover. I believe the litmus test to determine the maturity of a leader is the level of their personal commitment to self-development outside of daily work experiences and mandated training; professional maturity doesn’t come with rank or time in service as BG Patrick Donahoe revealed in his eye-widening tweet (which led to a fantastic thread of following thoughts).
We may transition between the institutional and operational realms many times over our careers, but self-development should be enduring. Obviously, the above model is pretty incomplete when we remove self-development, which means that our development as leaders is pretty incomplete if we don’t enact it.
So, How Do I “Do” Self-Development?
For many, if we’ve recently realized the importance of self-development, the natural follow-on question is: how do I do it? Great question!
First, it’s important to identify the personal areas that you need to develop in; where do you need to fill the gaps that are left from your operational and institutional experiences? As an example, I am an U.S. Army engineer officer. Thus, considering those professions, I need to develop my skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking as an engineer, an Army officer, and as a leader. For my engineer development, I need to remain current on certain engineer technical knowledge, Army engineer doctrine, and so on. As an Army officer, I must continue to develop my skills to successfully transition to field grade officership, management skills at higher levels in a unit, and thinking at the operational and strategic levels of the military. Finally, as a generic “leader,” I need to continue to develop my knowledge and abilities in self-awareness, influence-based behavior, etc. The graphic below showcases my personal areas of development and how they relate to one another. While developing as a leader spans beyond my role as an Army officer, it directly improves those abilities as well.
Your development areas will be different from mine; you will have different professional roles and possibly more roles to include. You may have a role as a historian, which is an area that needs personal focused development. That circle of development may be in a similar location as my engineer one, or it may span to include other areas of development while having a portion of the circle not captured anywhere else, more like an oval-shape that extends outside of the other circles; maybe some aspects of being a historian are just about being a historian, not necessarily tied to officership, leadership, etc. This can apply for other areas that may apply to you such as being a teacher, a strategist, physician, firefighter, etc. Your diagram may not be organized concentric circles like mine shown here.
Common Self-Development Habits
Below are a few activities that I recommend others engage in as part of your self-development efforts. Consider how you can engage in these common activities to develop your different roles discussed above. I embedded a number of weblinks in the below section in order to offer additional resources for those looking to learn more about that specific activity.
- Reading: Jocko Willink, co-author of Extreme Ownership, stated, “I’ve been mentored by some of the best leaders in the world because I’ve read what they wrote.” Reading allows us to expand our learning horizon beyond personal experiences. Reading is a foundational component to every self-development effort. I encourage you to look into the Leaders are Readers series to learn more on how to use reading for self-development and leader growth.
- Reflecting: This is a critical activity that is often ignored because many don’t know how to reflect. We cannot learn from our experiences if we don’t think about them afterword in a structured and deliberate way. Self-development will fall short every time without inclusion of reflective activities. Explore the Leader Reflection series to learn more about this nebulous concept and specific ways to enact reflection in your routine behavior.
- Writing: It’s a reflective activity, but one many shy away from because they are nervous to put pen to paper for fear of being judged by others or feeling unqualified to do so. Read more on a few personal thoughts and benefits that writing has offered me.
- Discussing: Talking about what you are experiencing and learning helps you clarify your lessons and allows you to consider other perspectives as well. I challenge you to identify and engage in a routine relationship with a peer coach as a developmental activity.
- Listening: I find there are lots of opportunities each day where I am engaged in mindless busy work, which I can use for self-development. During routine tasks like commuting, walking the dog, washing kitchen dishes after dinner, and more, you can use those opportunities to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. Learn more about audiobooks here and find audiobook resources here. Check out my top podcast recommendations here.
Finally, it’s important to define your self-development activities and package them into a holistic approach, making it a comprehensive effort, not random and sporadic behaviors. I encourage you to check out the 3×5 Leadership 168-Series if you have not. The 10-part series offers nine different self-development approaches from leaders and influencers that I respect. By reading their examples, you can better understand how to structure your own approach.
While self-development is about self-improvement as leaders, remember that it also serves as an example for others to model off of. Ensure your self-development efforts become contagious. Every leader development effort should aim to create the next generation(s) of leaders who are equipped and inspired to be life-long learners themselves, who take responsibility of their own growth.
I’m excited to move into the third building block of our leader development approach next week by discussing how to implement a leader development approach and introducing the leader development matrix!
Lead well, friends!
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