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.
Explore more on reflection through the Reflection Series, consider the benefit of collective reflection, and check out the relationship between leader vulnerability and reflection.
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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