Reconsidering Leadership Development

What is Leadership? I ask the question, as I believe that most of the time, most people, have difficulty answering this question.

The difficulty lies in that leadership is a social phenomenon, which appears differently depending on the context. Leadership within a group of fire fighters evacuating a building and dealing with a blaze, will be utterly different to that of a group of academics running a University department. Indeed, precisely what made the fire fighters effective in leadership would make these academics ineffective.

What if we could define Leadership as the ability to mobilise yourself and others towards a particular focus? How that then shows up will be different in different contexts and different moments in time.

And how then, do we develop leadership, if it’s different moment by moment and in each different context?

For me Leadership Development comes down to 4 key elements that we need to work with:

1. What’s the purpose of my leadership?
It’s easy to skip over this one, but it’s crucial. If I am to mobilise others, and myself, towards a particular focus, what do I care about enough to want to do this? This can be short-term, like the fire fighters short-term focus in evacuating a building, or a longer-term sense of purpose which got that person into this career in the first place.

A question to ask: what will your leadership achieve, change, improve or build in the world? And, if you can’t answer that question, then you need to ask yourself why anyone would want to follow you (other than perhaps because you do their performance reviews and set their bonus, which I would define as coercion rather than leadership).

2. Can I be courageous?
Occasionally we hear talk of fearless leadership, which is a truly scary concept. Fearless leadership is either so meek as to achieve nothing, or a psychopathic lack of emotion, which would be ultimately harmful. I believe we need courageous leadership, which is about feeling fear and taking action despite that fear. Stepping up into leadership means you will stick your head above the parapet and make yourself a target. This takes courage and courage is develop-able. However developing courageous leadership involves putting yourself in uncomfortable situations.

Effective leadership programmes develop courage through making participants uncomfortable. Having a purpose that you care about deeply helps you to find courage in moments where it feels most difficult.

3. Can I have behavioural flexibility, with authenticity?
To lead effectively across different contexts and moment-by-moment changes requires behavioural flexibility. Your personality is a collection of habitual patterns of thoughts, feelings and actions, which become familiar over time.However this familiarity and habitual responses can massively diminish your effectiveness as a leader; they will work for you some of the time and not others.

To be able to flex and respond as the leadership need arises requires a time investment to cultivate your ability to respond beyond your personality and habits. To do this authentically means that you don’t do it by acting or trying to, for example, pretend to empathise with people, disguising an inability to connect with them. It requires cultivating the ability to connect and empathise with others effectively.

4. Can I attend to and be aware of the moment-by-moment context and make appropriate choices?
Your mind has a tendency to focus on the future (either worrying about what might happen, or imagining what could happen) or the past (fretting over what did happen, reliving past glories, etc) or indeed a combination of the two where you imagine what you could have done differently in that past situation. That is to say, your mind doesn’t really spend time in the present moment.Having your attention on the present moment is difficult.

However your ability to train your attention through mindfulness and embodied techniques, is key to being able to respond to the present moment and make choices that take advantage of the behavioural flexibility you have cultivated. Without the ability to notice the unfolding moments of the context you are in, all the work above will have been in vain.

All of this may sound like a lot of hard work, and it is.

A 2-day workshop with personality tests such as Myers-Briggs, will not enable this.

This is a long-term commitment to developing ones self, that goes beyond the self-awareness generated by personality questionnaires and into the self-cultivation and mastery that come from following a long-term path of development.

And in today’s world this is an unpopular message. Organisations want shorter and shorter bite-size development programmes (read 2-hours in length), but this doesn’t change the fact that developing capable leaders requires something different.

Organisations say they want true leaders. True leadership development takes an investment of time.

True leaders, that meet all of the criteria above, are inherently uncontrollable, and will themselves demand to be led, rather than controlled or coerced, by those above them in the hierarchy. This is a challenging concept to all senior leaders in letting go of control, and trusting in their own leadership enough to develop leaders below them in a hierarchy, and may indeed lead to the end of hierarchy in its current form.

A scary thought for many, but it’s something that is starting to emerge in organisations around the world.

Originally published on:

7:40 pm | by Pete_Hamill

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