In a recent WorkLife podcast episode I listened to, the host, Adam Grant, made a statement that resonated deeply. He said, “Let’s ban psychological solutions to organizational problems.” That sentence felt like a 100-pound brick being dropped in my lap! He went on to list common examples that may be all too familiar to many of us – organizations applying employee-based fixes like mindfulness activities, emotional intelligence training, or strategies to avoid personal burnout, when really the organization has deeper rooted issues like the need to remove an abusive boss or diagnose ineffective and inefficient systems. And while I have written on emotional intelligence and avoiding personal burnout on this platform, I think Grant’s idea is valid and warrants exploring.More
Posts by Joshua Bowen:
How are you learning as a leader?
How are you leading?
And how are you developing others?
Can you sufficiently answer these questions about your leadership impact right now? As intentional and effective leaders, we should be able to.
Two primary goals for 3×5 Leadership are to (1) help make other leaders more intentional and (2) deliberately developmental in how they lead. Defining how we learn, lead, and develop others are all critical aspects to achieve those. To maximize our effectiveness and efficiency in these efforts, we need to model how we achieve each of those through an operating framework.
An operating framework is a representation that serves as a guide to areas of emphasis and behaviors around a particular topic. It models components and relationships as a system to explain how it works.
Leaders need to have operating frameworks for how we learn, how we lead, and how we develop others.More
Empathy plays a critical role in leadership. It impacts how we interact with and relate to those we lead.
Personally, empathy was a leadership quality near the top of my “needs development” list just a few years ago. Following feedback that I needed to grow this capacity, I invested time and effort to learn more about the science of empathy, ways to integrate it into my leadership style, and practice it to build the muscle. Now, I’m confident that empathy has become a strength of mine, no longer a developmental need.
But experiences this past year have taught me a new dynamic to empathy and leadership that I was blind to before – the need to have empathy up our chain of command or organizational chart. More
Consider this all-too-common scenario: Your division or team receives a new manager, or maybe your military unit receives your new commander. This new, energetic leader quickly establishes a “leader development program,” where they intend to get everyone together monthly for some sort of professional development session. This may commonly be known as leader professional development sessions (LPDs) in the military, professional development (PD) in education, or staff training in other industries. These sessions seem promising as the covered topics include important processes on how our team operates, maybe new ideas on teamwork, and how we can better interact with one another. However, over some time, you notice nothing is actually changing or improving within your division or your unit; no changes seem to be happening and how we work and interact remains the same. We are conducting these monthly lectures and discussions, but results, processes, nor people seem to be improving.
Unfortunately, the concept of “leader development” has broadly boiled down to a mere leader check-the-block task. As leaders, many think that because I am creating some routine event to talk about a topic aimed at making something better, then I am achieving leader development. However, this aspect of lecturing to provide new information to our people is only a fraction of what wholistic leader development can and should look like within our organizations. This alone does not make for effective leader development.
While leadership and developing our leaders is highly contextual – what we need from our leaders and our organization’s specific developmental needs are unique – there are common elements of a more wholistic approach to leader development. These elements, outlined below, serve as buckets to categorize the activities we create and enact within our teams to develop better, more capable leaders. The details of activities can vary so they are tailored to your specific contexts, but we must ensure we attend to all the elements by creating quality, sufficient, and sustainable activities to saturate our peoples’ routine experiences across all elements.
A Precursor: Readiness for Development
We can create the best leader development program and activities in the world, but if they are not offered to people who are open to and ready for development, it is worthless. A necessary precursor for effective leader development is people who are in fact ready for development. I simplify readiness for development into two basic components: willing and able.
Being willing to receive development means our people value the opportunities for and process of improving. They recognize growth is a life-long pursuit, value the process of improving, and personally commit to doing so. As a leader, I can only bring the horse to the water; the horse must also be willing to drink.
Able means that our people have the capacity for development. If everyone in our organization is maxed out of their mental, emotional, and time capacity merely trying to accomplish their day-to-day work, they do not have any available capacity to pour into the challenges of developing as leaders. So, we must ensure that our people have the capacity to take on development.
A few ideas on how we can build and encourage a readiness for development within our teams:
- Building capacity: Ensure our organization’s systems and processes are both effective and efficient.
- Role modeling: Inspiring others to commit to their development through our energy and example. Development begets development; pour into your own leader development and you’ll be surprised how much that encourages others to follow suit.
- Communicate perspective: Share why this matters, the value in it, and the impact it will have. Informed people are equipped people; equipped people are inspired people.
The most overlooked element of leader development is the daily work of our organization. Too often, leaders view daily work simply as “the work” to get done and then leader development as some whole separate occurrence. However, research shows that 70% of development in the workplace occurs on the job through work experience. We need to shift our thinking around leader development – it is not some exclusive activity outside the bounds of our daily work, but inclusive into how we do our routine work, how we interact and influence one another, and create shared understanding and commitment to what we do. Development of our leaders must include how we do business every day.
A few considerations on maximizing development through our peoples’ daily experiences and routine work:
- Creating challenging experiences: Think about coach Pat Summitt’s quote when she said, “In order to grow, you must accept new responsibilities, no matter how uncertain you may feel or how unprepared you are to deal with them.” To encourage and maximize peoples’ development, leaders must create and offer challenging experiences to stretch peoples’ abilities. Consider a person’s developmental needs or next step in their professional progression and construct opportunities to grow them in those areas.
- Use of “developmental communication”: Every interaction with a member of my team is an opportunity for development. How I communicate in that interaction must be tailored to best meet the developmental needs of that person in that moment. Do I need to provide clear expectations, give feedback, mentor, coach, or teach? All are important forms of communication, but which one is best for their development right now? Leaders must leverage all of the forms of developmental communication, applying the right flavor at the right time.
- Feedback: Feedback is the essential foundation for development. There is no better way to improve self-awareness, self-management, and performance. The issue is, however, that feedback is incredibly sensitive. We are socialized to shy away from giving or being willing to receive it. Leaders must normalize feedback within their team, which includes education, training, and repetition. Explore the Feedback Primer to dive deep into all things feedback.
- Balancing challenge & support: Development through experiences must appropriately balance challenge and support. Challenge includes high expectations, accountability, candor, adversity, surfacing and addressing underdeveloped areas and needs for growth. Keys to challenge are incompetence and discomfort. Challenging activities include feedback, intense onboarding processes, situational workshops, etc. People cannot experience challenge alone though. It is not sustainable as people will eventually cave under the immense pressure that challenge creates. We must balance it with support by creating identity and belonging, cohesion, relationships, and psychological safety. This can include methods to recognize people, gratitude, and cultivating all the sources of cohesion.
New Knowledge & Capacities
Leader development must also provide new information and ways of thinking. This element equips people with new knowledge, skills, and abilities, which are necessary to excel in increasingly more challenging roles and to achieve improved results. Though I addressed the issue of simply considering monthly professional development sessions as leader development, these type of leader development activities are important – they just cannot be the sole source of development.
Formally, we can educate through lectures, classes, etc. At the organizational level, such opportunities can be used to address trends of collective needed development or to prepare the group for upcoming change to our processes and how we do business.
Informally, we can through mentorship; coaching; and providing helpful resources like books, articles, and podcasts. These opportunities can be more personal, tailored to a person’s unique developmental needs.
Education and training are important, but alone are insufficient. New knowledge must lead to improved performance through future experiences with the support of reflection.
The final common element of leader development, reflection, is the mechanism that enables people make cognitive connections between information, ideas, and experiences; to make sense of their experiences; and ultimately emerge with new information, lessons, and intentions moving forward. It is a critical mechanism to help people put things together and in the right place within how they view their work and the world.
Reflection is a highly individual and unique experience; how I prefer to reflect may look very different from how you might. But a leader’s responsibility is to encourage and create opportunity for reflection by providing time, space, and structure. There is no right way to reflect individually and collectively, but processing is an important component to development. Leaders must enable, encourage, and foster reflection within routine processes in our organizations.
There are myriad ways to approach each of these elements and how to connect them for a wholistic approach to leader development; there is no right way. I do offer this model, below, on how the precursor and three elements relate from Forsythe & Spencer’s research (2018). When trying to cultivate a more complete approach to developing leaders through this approach, I recommend three simple steps:
- Identify the activities that already exist and label them by each of the elements. I like to actually print this model and write current developmental activities that exist in our organization in red pen next to the element it helps achieve.
- Then, consider the activities that exist in relation to the elements. Where are any noticeable gaps? Does your organization heavily weigh new knowledge activities with little to no activities that support developmental experiences and reflection? This helps us understand where we need to pour some attention into and work to create activities around.
- Finally, create high-quality, sustainable activities to fill those identified gaps. You can find great ideas and examples from many resources online, from books, mentors, etc. Or you can brainstorm to innovate new ones with members on your team.
I hope you are a little more equipped and inspired to take the next step in developing leaders with a more complete approach by using all the elements of development so we can maximize the growth of the next generation of leaders.
Forsythe, G. B. & Spencer, E. H. (2018). Leadership development: Growing effective leaders. In Smith, Swain, Brazil, Cornwell, Britt, Bond, Eslinger, and Eljdid (Eds.), West Point leadership. New York, NY: Rowan Technology Solutions.
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In the duty assignment that I recently changed out of, there were five echelons of leaders between the most junior members of the organization and me, which is the greatest disconnect I have experienced in my career to this point. Over the year of that job, I unfortunately found how easy it was for me hardly see or interact with those junior members on a routine basis. Days of not interacting with them easily turned to weeks and sometimes months. Through this experience, I learned that as we move higher in the organizational chart or chain of command, the higher the power and relational distance becomes between the most junior members of our organization and us. Leaders can easily become disconnected from our junior members.
This is an issue because we can be seen as losing touch by those echelons down the organizational chart, which leads to lost trust in “senior leadership.” I relate this to John Maxwell’s idea where he states that, “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” Increased disconnection and decreased trust lead to severe negative impacts on organizational effectiveness. Leaders must deliberately find and practice routine ways to remain engaged with and connected to the most junior members in our organizations.
As former Secretary Mattis wrote in his book, Call Sign Chaos,
“If you can’t talk freely with the most junior members of your organization, then you’ve lost touch.”
I recently had a junior leader that I mentor in my office visibly distraught over the lack of perceived change and growth that had occurred within his 130-person team since he took responsibility of leading them some 20 weeks prior. He laid out his efforts up to that point of raising performance and expectation standards, holding members accountable, and doing what he could to explain the intent behind the team’s efforts and priorities. However, he felt that no one on the team was buying in to his efforts, committing, or even caring. He believed he was doing everything right – what he could and needed to do to improve the team through his efforts – but growth was not occurring.
As this leader spoke, I knew his intentions were in the right place and he cared deeply. Yet, as I continued to listen, I couldn’t help but think back to two foundational ideas that heavily influence my leadership style and intentions; there were certainly at play in his scenario:
“People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” – John C. Maxwell
“People are interested in those who are interested in them.”
I believed this leader was facing a challenge to many of us at some stage. The challenge is that in an effort to build effective teams, leaders unintentionally overlook the personal, human-dimension of cohesion; we see team members for the value they bring to the team and fail to simply see them as human beings who have worth no matter what. We unfortunately have a limited view of what defines an effective team and the full range of team cohesion sources that feed into it. So, to build effective teams of committed people that last, leaders need to start with a people-first mentality and fully understand what team cohesion actually is.More
“No one sets out to intentionally be the ‘worst boss,’ but no one becomes the ‘best boss’ unless they are intentional.”
–J. Morgan, friend of 3×5 Leadership
Being an intentional leader and consistently deliberate in our approaches have become key to the few critical bedrock principles of effective leadership through more than a decade of pursuing my passion for leadership and developing other leaders. Intentional leaders who are deliberate in their approaches take ownership for their responsibilities and their team, are thoughtful in how they act and why, are careful in their decisions, remain considerate of the impacts they have, and ultimately are incredibly caring for those placed in their charge. As our friend, J. Morgan, asserts above, we cannot be the ‘best boss’ or the outstanding leader that people deserve without a consistent commitment to being intentional.More
I recently had a conversation with an organizational leader who expressed that “empathetic leadership” is one of the biggest threats to the performance of his team. He believed that team members simply sought for their leaders to be more empathetic to their challenges and circumstance (really sympathy), and that leaders felt called to be more nurturing of their people, leading to an inability to maintain high standards of performance. As I listened to this leader speak more on his unapproving perceptions on empathy and leadership, I realized the source of the issue – I think he has an inaccurate and limited view on the role of empathy in leadership.
This issue is not unique to this leader or case. We have an enduring problem in our understanding of empathy and leadership that tends to fall into one of three issues.More
Thus far over my career of leading and managing others, I’ve found that my toughest challenges have not been technical work issues, struggles to meet team metrics or goals, or worries over team execution matters. While those are demanding, yes, my toughest challenges have been helping people be able to bring their full selves to the team every day, which often includes baggage from life.
I have had to fill sensitive spaces as a leader by loving, supporting, and working with others through life challenges like loss of family and loved ones, divorce, health difficulties, financial issues, harassment & assault, mental and emotional concerns, performance failures, and much more. Despite no formal education in these spaces, I’ve had to wear hats as an unofficial marriage and family counselor, financial advisor, and conflict resolution mediator more often than I can count to best love, lead, and enable people on my team to be successful – both within the team and in life.
These challenges are not unique to my own experiences or a select set of teams or industries. These span across all leadership & management roles. To feel safe and to maximize potential for success on the team, people must be able to bring their full selves to work every day. Thus, to help support others through the challenges of life, leaders must be able and willing to fill sensitive, challenging spaces. This requires a developed sense of and confidence in leader vulnerability. More
By Aaron Griffing
Editorial Note: This article highlights a political figure as a case study but is not offered as a supporting endorsement of a particular party, candidacy, or policy. It is strictly offered as a leadership example of the impact of disciplined habits.
What do Coast Redwood trees, Barack Obama, and the University of Alabama have in common?
At first glance, not much. However, in applying the lens of the discipline of habits, they in fact share many commonalities, ultimately demonstrating to us the impact of a commitment to disciplined habits can have on our sustained growth and success.
I recently finished James Clear’s Atomic Habits while simultaneously beginning Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. I could not help but notice some of the principles Clear shares in his book on habits were affirmed in Obama’s presidential memoirs. The two books left me with four major takeaways:
- You must remain persistent with your habits – they take time to bare results.
- We often experience a plateau effect before breaking through toward truly impactful improvement and results.
- The best don’t rest – even after achieving success, continue to seek improvement.
- Establishing and employing a productive process is more impactful than establishing and achieving a goal.