It’s clear that today’s professional environments demand greater sophistication of knowledge work; broader global perspectives, infrastructures, and multi-national systems; as well as leaders who are able to self-initiate, self-direct and self-manage. Yet at the same time, high performing leaders continue to be in short supply.
Whether we peer into big business, government, mature non-profits, mid-size companies or startups, the findings are similar: strong leadership is needed and the demand for it vastly outpaces our ability to ready the next generation of leaders to thrive in today’s business climates.
One of the few strategies that can help us to develop greater leadership aptitudes is the use of developmentally crafted curriculum, exercises and assessments. However (and unfortunately) most leaders in organizations are unaware of this body of research, and they aren’t using it to drive leader development in their organizations.
Of the many important business initiatives a company can invest in, the explicit mental development of its leaders and future leaders ought to be an essential priority. Some of the most competitive organizations today are those with a “deliberately developmental” architecture built into the fabric of how they operate—through their leadership development and programming, talent cultivation, and talent retention strategies.
Based on my experience as a coach working with leaders who are struggling with this very issue in their organizations, my contention is that the mental development of leaders is the defining factor that will increasingly determine which organizations will thrive in the next decade.
As an example, here are two key organizational outcomes that are driven by greater individual development:
One of the most cherished aptitudes of adult development is the emergence of a trustable inner authority.
Your trustable inner authority is the value-generating faculty that initiates change from within you. It means you are inherently self-directing, or that you possess what I call “self-directed integrity.”
And inner authority is not to be confused with the ability to parrot what a brilliant professor told you, what a senior manager mentored you on last quarter, or what you recently read in the latest Harvard Business Review.
Having a trustable inner authority means that you’re not merely dependent upon external forms of authority. When you face critical decisions, when you confront uncertainty, you don’t run to a board member or to a senior manager with more experience.
Instead, you turn attention inward and begin to carefully assess your experience and the situation from multiple perspectives. You draw on past experience and open your attention to new possibilities. You’re able to use mentors or senior management to cultivate greater curiosity and gather and assess broader information flows—even if you don’t have clear direction, succinct next steps forward or instructions. And because you’re surveying more information, you can avoid limiting assumptions, succeed at generating new directions, and have access to more nimble responses capable of serving you, the people around you, and your organization.
Many companies implicitly demand this inner authority from their leadership, while others fail to develop it entirely. Two mistakes are commonly made here. Either they presume their leaders already have these aptitudes, or the organizational culture becomes entrenched in the notion of an external authority.
In the first instance many leaders find themselves feeling unsupported. In new situations they easily become overwhelmed and they assume they should not ask for help. In the second, members of the organization are taught to follow the chain of command upwards in order to establish direction. This can often leave leaders feeling disempowered. They run a risk of becoming disengaged from their work. This causes organizations to lose flexibility and responsiveness.
In both cases, leadership development and the cultivation of critical business acumen is compromised.
Diversity is a major initiative in many organizations today–most of the progressive and leading edge cultures practice welcoming diversity in important ways. This is a developmental achievement for the leaders doing this work and its a feature of more mature forms of organizational development.
However, welcoming diversity isn’t just about welcoming in people who are different from you. And its not merely a protocol for hiring. Diversity is fundamentally about difference. And difference is fundamentally about change. Which means to welcome diversity is to welcome change.
Fast-paced and rapidly shifting landscapes drive tremendous changes in organizations today. These differences elicit tremendous anxiety in many adults, leaders included.
At more conventional stages of adult development, diversity is threatening. We tend to avoid the challenge. Leaders all too commonly insulate themselves from change, but when this happens, leadership fails. Organizations fall short. Change is adopted slowly, if at all.
But more nimble organizations operating with greater leadership development are inherently more welcoming toward diversity. Difference and the changes that it invites are not met with anxiety and avoidance but instead with curiosity and a willingness to confront uncertainty with openness.
So, what is greater discernment, vision and self-management worth to your organization? Why might it be required later on today in your most important projects? What is the return on investment for having leadership that welcomes diversity with curiosity, rapidly approaches change without anxiety, and creatively adapts new innovations? How might leadership need the ability to vision and re-vision the way employees approach their jobs and how people conceive of an organization as a whole? How might these aptitudes impact the bottom line?
As you contemplate these questions, consider these steps that can help you and your organization be more “deliberately developmental,” as Robert Kegan, Harvard’s professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development, suggests.
1. Think about ways you can get your leadership and management to step outside of their day-to-day workflows, agendas and plans. When decision making can rest on a durable internal authority, your organization’s leadership can see their job and institution from the outside in (instead of just the inside out). This will yield higher resolution insights on effective action.
2. Challenge leadership to orient from beyond the culture of their professional relationships. This means asking different kinds of questions, challenging the unspoken and often unseen cultural assumptions your leadership team holds, and regularly reflecting on the management culture your organization holds.
3. Remember, diversity is your friend. Invite greater diversity and change into your everyday operations. Do not insulate your organization from change. Train your management to be open and curious in the face of diversity. Difference creates contrasts. These contrasts enable leadership to take new perspectives on the organization and leverage new opportunities.
4. Bring in programming, training and consulting that is well nuanced in adult development. Get your senior leadership thinking about the development. Deploy curriculum to help new managers become more agile and capable in the face of fast pace change. And most importantly, begin deploying strategies to help change the nature of the work they do day in and day out so that it is directly supporting and challenging people to develop new aptitudes for the future.
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self
Faculty & Coach, Integral Facilitator Certificate Program
Rob McNamara’s premiere developmental audio learning program, Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work, is now available. Learn More.
Moe, I.E. (2007), “Behov for a ̊ skape globale ledere” (“Need to create global managers”), Dagens
Næringsliv, 26 January.
Harung, H., Travis, F., Blank, W & Heaton. D, (2009), “Higher development, brain integration, and excellence in leadership”. Management Decision, Vol. 47, No. 6. Pp 872-894.
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