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What is Leadership Development, anyway?

By Glenn Kaufman on Jul. 6, 2015 in

What is Leadership Development, anyway?

Virtually all large organizations pay attention to “developing” their leaders.  But what does this really mean?  Is there really one best way to do this?

Ironically, in my experience, many companies purport to do leadership development without ever really defining what they mean by leadership to begin with.  How can you develop a leader without really knowing what it is that you are developing?  Yes, companies have competencies that they publish, use in 360 feedback, or even evaluate people with formal appraisals.  But that is not the same as defining leadership so that they can determine how to mold their people into solid leaders.

For me, leadership is the ability to use one’s self as a catalyst for getting (great) things done.  Period.  It is the common denominator in ALL leadership roles, regardless of position, and it is “trait-free” in that it doesn’t require any specific personality to “do” leadership.  With this definition, leadership is better seen as a collection of acts rather than a job one holds.  This also means that anyone in an organization can do leadership and be developed to “be” one.

Using this definition, development becomes the process by which people learn about themselves, how they interact with, and are perceived by others, and then learn how to get beyond themselves to serve an organization and accomplish things through others.  That is a mouthful…I know, and while not an easy task, it is one that can be developed.  The best way to mold leaders is through a combination of on the job experience, coupled with a process for getting them to learn about themselves and how they are using assignments and experience to be leaders.

A common myth in organizations is that leaders will develop simply by being rotated them through different assignments over several years.  Sure, they will learn about new functions, and possibly different cultures and markets- all important and valuable lessons.  However, without explicit attention to their leadership ability simultaneously, the chances are slim that they will emerge from these assignments as better leaders. More knowledgeable managers, certainly.  But getting better at using oneself as a catalyst, a skill that is then transferable to other future assignments is unlikely unless it is deliberately part of the process.

Great leadership development imparts a healthy dose of self-awareness, which is necessary to make deliberate and effective decisions about how to influence others.  We always learn more when we actively reflect on a situation.  But this won’t happen by chance.  It needs to be taught, coached, and infused into your leadership development process.

So, is your leadership development program just that- a program driven by events?  Or is it driven by a process that imparts both business skills, and the ability to use oneself as the prime catalyst for igniting the engine that gets things done in your company?

Leaders can be developed.  But in my opinion, it is better to deliberately work both tracks simultaneously and connect the dots for a robust leadership development process.


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