When the revolution comes to leader development


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I recently saw an #occupy placard which read, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this s**t.” I smiled in recognition and instantly made a connection to the feeling I get when I read yet another article about the dearth of good “leadership” in our institutions and how we need to invest more in leader development. At the same time, I go into a huff when I read articles online that seem to intimate that there is no point in trying to teach leadership because it is not teachable. My huff, however, is not a sour grapes huff, it’s a passionate educator’s huff.

I will side with those who assert that leadership training as it has been delivered is well past its sell-by date, but please let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. It is true that a lot of what our institutions require of leaders cannot be learnt in a training room, however I will also assert that there are still aspects of leadership capability that can be grown within the dynamic of a learning group. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that some of the capabilities a leader requires are best learnt in the context of a learning group. In this category, I would include capabilities (i.e. the doing of, not the knowing about) related to communicating or managing one’s emotions in response to others. It is one of the paradoxes of learning that nobody can learn for us and that we do it out of our own individual efforts, but that we learn best when with others in a group.

There is a revolution required in leader learning and development and it must come on several fronts. Firstly, it must come in the mindset that approaches it. What happens over the whole timeline of a leader’s development and what we consider as important elements of that timeline must shift; a peer group, such as a Vistage group, is just as much a part of a leader’s development, as is a 360 review or executive retreat. To focus more specifically on what happens in the ‘training room’, there must also be a revolution in both content and process. No more chalk and talk. No more using powerpoint as a drunk uses a lamp-post (for support, instead of illumination). No more long-winded presenters who continually announce that “in a moment we’ll get going with the group exercise” only to run out of time in the last 10 minutes and say “shall we just have a quick group Q and A”. As Donald Clark says in this presentation, the right tools for the right job: for example, working on the attitudinal level requires an experiential tool. He identifies simulation in this category of tool; I would also include sociodrama and Morenian action methods. (I would, though, wouldn’t I?)

The content revolution in the ‘training’ room must be in purposefulness, practicality and relevance. Is what goes on there meaningful to the participants? More importantly, are they facilitated to make meaning of what happens in the room? Is it practical and applicable to their real lives? Is it relevant to their actual concerns and does it take account of what they already know, what they need to develop in order to work with greater flexibility and effectiveness and perhaps most importantly, what they want to develop as human beings? Leader learning must bring work into the learning and the learning into work. What purport to be ‘leadership development programmes’ are flawed if they operate as if the only learning that can occur is in the ‘training’ room, but it is equally flawed to think that deep learning cannot happen in this space as well.

On the process side, I struggle to comprehend that with the amount we now know from neuroscience about what makes learning happen, that there are 1) people still out there purporting to deliver leadership development when in fact they are delivering information sessions ABOUT leadership and leader capability and that 2) there are organisations still paying for it in the belief that it will create change.

A lot of what is currently on offer in the realm of ‘leadership development’ is usually half-day (or sometimes even more cheekily, two-day) events with pre-planned agenda which tell you what you will have learnt by when. How do they know what you will learn? Are they time travelling mind-readers? There is no promise that you will be different as a person, but then again, consultants and trainers shy away from such claims because: 1) they don’t want to scare potential clients away with the idea that people will actually change as human beings (heaven forfend); 2) they often (in my experience) do not possess much understanding, training and experience of applying truly transformational deep learning approaches that generate such profound changes in people-they are more often successful entrepreneurs, economists or managers themselves who believe that anyone can teach, which is not the case; and 3) they are terrified that if they use experiential processes in which people meet themselves and others in any meaningful way, they won’t know how to manage the unpredictable interactions this implies. This last one is entirely reasonable; if you haven’t trained (and done the requisite personal development yourself) in processes which call up emotions, why on earth would you invite people to actively participate. I recently attended something which was billed as an ‘interactive workshop’, but was, in fact, the presenter ‘interacting’ with us via his powerpoint and asking a bunch of rhetorical questions. At least, I think they were rhetorical because he got no response from any of the ‘participants’.

I realise that last bit will have upset some people, and I make no apologies for this. For those of you still reading, I make the point because we are well and truly past the time when this revolution in workplace learning should have occurred. This is urgent. This revolution will be impotent unless it is in mindset, content and method of delivery, because process must be congruent with content. We are facing systemic challenges the like of which humanity has not seen in its history. We require leaders (and I don’t just mean those with leadership title) in all walks of life, at all levels of all kinds of organisations, who act with boldness, vision, creativity and the love of other humans. Settling for same old, same old will not do. Pink Floyd make the point beautifully: we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control. We need meaningful development which unleashes human potential.

My advice if you are looking to develop yourself or those who lead your organisation: don’t settle for anything less than you want. If you are looking for leadership development, then shop around till you find someone who actually knows what the word ‘development’ means. Development is NOT training. It is not a workshop; although workshops may be one component of a systemic approach. I understand that you are crying out for something new, something radical, something that actually works and generates genuine, significant and long-lasting change in relationships and capability in your organisation, but please, NOT naked Fridays. It is important, with the L&D marketplace full of good and not-so-good providers, to sift out the snake oil salesmen and women promising culture shift after a week of high ropes courses or releasing a live pig into the office. Yes, that live pig clip is a satire, but there are many Lester Becks out there, believe me. I have used it before, but this quote from Drucker is apt: “We are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.”

If you are getting someone external to deliver some kind of leader development, get a practitioner who understands that development happens over time, and that it is not an event. Work with someone who will assist you to make a rigourous analysis of what your organisation and its people actually need. Get a practitioner who understands that it is a suite of interventions,not simply the series of workshops that they offer; they may even have to call on other consultants because they acknowledge that they cannot possibly provide the whole gamut. Get someone whose practice has solid foundation; i.e., it springs out of some kind of philosophical, ethical or pragmatic set of principles or is highly rigourous. Finally, work with someone who does not claim to have all the answers, but who will keep it simple, focussed and will ensure your active involvement all along the way.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


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