LEADER DEVELOPMENT: This Is What Business Professionals Do

Leader development efforts in business has progressed through a series of stages from the trait theory of the early 20th century, to the behaviorists of the 1950s, to the systems analysts of the 1960s. The 1980s brought the influence of Total Quality, the focus of the 1990s was Principle Centered Leadership.

Over the past few years the focus on many businesses has been on continuous process improvement strategies including Lean Six Sigma and Competency Based Models. Combining these continuous improvement strategies and leadership development programs can help businesses grow and pivot for success.

The current operating environment demands we combine the best aspects of each with new and evolving approaches. Tomorrow’s leader development efforts should include:

  • Rapid decision making
  • Adaptability and flexibility enhancement
  • Servant and trans-formative leadership
  • Continuous learning

It’s difficult to generalize business leadership as an activity, it must be tailored to an organization’s context, culture, climate, and character. Leadership in the private sector differs from that in the public sector, and even in the public sector, it varies according to the objectives of the business.

Leadership is different than management. While there are many ways to define both, my personal view leads me to define leadership as the sum of those qualities of intellect, human understanding, and moral character that enables a person to inspire and to control a group of people successfully. Leadership focuses on interpersonal interactions with a purpose of increasing organizational effectiveness.

This added emphasis on organizational effectiveness is by way of individual effectiveness.

leadership developmentManagement, on the other hand, is a process that results in getting other people to execute prescribed duties for organizational goal attainment. As a process, it is focused primarily on efficiency. Both leadership and management are critical organizational functions, and some mistakenly believe that management is somehow inferior to leadership. While these competencies are complementary, our focus is leadership.

Many theorists recognize three domains of leadership.

  • Physical; This aspect of leadership is the most visible and varies by context of service or function. One must possess certain physical attributes, such as endurance to be successful. There are other physical attributes, like appearance and presence, that have traditionally been considered essential as well.
  • Moral; Without question, this aspect is the most critical in developing leaders. Character and morality is one of the most important facet of leadership.
  • Intellectual; Many businesses spends the lion’s share of their leader development resources on this training and education, and therefore, it will be the focus here.

Assessment for the Future

With all of that as historical backdrop on leader development in business, it’s possible to assess the current landscape and future direction. Much of the leader development program from entry level through the strategic level within business is based on the traits and behavior/style approaches popular during the last century with continuous process improvement strategies added for good measure.

However, many programs are beginning to focus more squarely on the context of the current operating environment; an environment characterized by volatility, uncertainty, and chaos.

Really effective leader development programs focus on full-spectrum operations that reflect unconventional and conventional environments. Dynamic leadership skills are demanded in such environments. Dynamic leader development programs must be perfected to meet such challenges.

Issue #1 Decision Making: The “Coin of the Realm” in Leader Development much attention has been paid lately to the development of intuitive decision making or rapid cognition. Malcolm Gladwell’s wildly popular book “Blink” has direct reference to its application in the business. Rapid cognition, however, relies heavily on instantaneous pattern recognition. Much of a employee’s time is spent attempting to discern patterns in interpersonal interaction, technical functioning, and interplay.

At the entry level, students are only introduced to the rules and standards upon which patterns are established. There can be no realistic hope, except for a particularly talented few, to bypass the stages of cognitive development. Coming to terms with chaos and complexity takes cognitive and attitudinal adjustment. Many employees simply lack the confidence in their own abilities to make those adjustments quickly. As with all personal development, education and experience combine to create the desired effect.

There can be no educational “silver bullet” to obviate the need for experience. Forethought is the precursor to intuition and was identified by Theodore Roosevelt to be the most important quality in preparation for leadership. Forethought, unlike intuition, can be honed exclusively in the classroom.

Replicate the experience desired as closely as possible. Adding stress to the lesson is critical. Learner confidence rises as hypothetical and real-world scenario simulations are introduced, tested, and debriefed. Actual experience cannot be replaced, but adequate forethought can be established. Intuitive decision making is predominantly the product of experience.

Forethought is, on many levels, a precursor to the skills demanded of leaders to make timely, appropriate decisions. And decision making constitutes a key objective of leader development programs. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that decision making training seminars have had any effect on participants.

Those seminars are typically based around selection strategies for choosing from among multiple courses of action. Such analytical methods miss the point entirely. Research has shown that decision makers, particularly those in business settings, “spend more time sizing up the situation than comparing alternate courses of action.”2 “Sizing up the situation” is only one function of forethought.

Some of the most convincing research assembled to support this “domain expertise” approach has shown that the key is in teaching students to maximize their experiences, rather than provide them with some form of analytical decision-making matrix. Like the case study method recommended earlier, Decision Skills Training experimented with during business training exercises beginning in 1998, provide a generalized template that could be applied across the levels of business education.

Issue #2 Developing Key Traits for Uncertain Environments: Adaptability and Flexibility while it is evident the current operating environment the business finds itself in calls for skill sets more consistent with the leadership of Lewis and Clark than Patton, the business education and training structure that produced Patton remains virtually unchanged.

The first step in inculcating a spirit of adaptability is to change how leadership is taught rather than to simply change what is taught. Training that is based solely upon the traditional task / condition / standard model breeds rote conformity. Education that is based solely upon the objective / lecture / assessment model breeds the same.

Traditional methods encourage analysis of a challenge and selection of standard solutions drawn from anticipated options. Methods that encourage the synthesis of information include reflective journal, the Socratic Method, demonstration assessment, broad skim reading, and the study of the philosophical principles that underlie the immediate challenge.

The second step in developing adaptable leaders is to focus on material that encourages creative thinking. Becoming familiar and comfortable with research in the field is critical. From psychology to sociology to business history to philosophy, all fields that explore human response to complexity must be considered. To make this broad grounding feasible, careful selection of instructional techniques and content must be undertaken by all stakeholders in the leadership development process.

Flexibility is typically defined as a personal quality that allows an individual to alter his or her opinions, practices, beliefs, or approach based on changing demands. Flexibility is absolutely essential on the 21st century battlefield as the environment and mission may change constantly. A precursor to the quality of flexibility is open mindedness. One can not flex to the environment if one is not willing. Many believe it is open-mindedness that is sorely lacking in leaders at every level and in every context. Business is no exception.

Open-mindedness is the personal quality that enables flexibility in the workplace and can be encouraged, if not developed in the classroom environment. This attribute can be developed at the business level in the following ways:

  • Creating empathy for those who have gone before (case study)
  • Exploring other world views and debating them fully (Socratic method)
  • Reviewing credible research in the topic at hand (broad skim reading).

In traditional, structured organizations such as the business, open-mindedness is not often prized as an essential trait. This can be changed by fully debating the position of other, non-traditional, and even non-business viewpoints. Adding culture education to a business system always pays dividends.

All of this empathizing and careful study of other world views need not lead to what is perceived in the business culture as “touchy-feely” or “politically correct” Instruction. Quite the contrary. Exploring alternative world views typically leads Americans to reconfirm their belief in their underlying principles, and the business who service it.

Free market capitalism presents the best hope for opportunity and upward mobility Each human being has fundamental worth, a value that guarantees freedom from physical harm or the harmful interference of government applying the world views of competitors or adversaries against these three factors of American life serves to confirm faith in the system that Americans uphold.

Instructors need only to be guided through its purpose and method. These methods, however, will vary according to the developmental level of the target audience. Leader development programs that ignore this do so at their own peril.

Issue #3 What Really Counts: Inspiring young people to buy into your business, rapid decision making and development of particular competencies is balanced with the timeless approaches that define the practice of business leadership, and those are servant leadership and transformation leadership. Servant leadership, as the name suggests, is an approach that encourages a person vested with authority to approach the task with a desire to serve first.

Although Robert Greenleaf is credited as the modern author of this approach, leadership based on trust, empathy, collaboration, and the ethical use of power is an ancient concept. Ultimately, this approach is tied up in the character trait of selflessness and resists classroom applications. One simply has to want to lead this way and take certain behaviors and attitudes until it becomes natural. It’s more challenging for some than it is for others.

Transformation leadership, a term coined by the famous theorist James MacGregor Burns, seeks to raise the level of motivation and morality in organizations. This is done by appealing to more long-term intrinsic needs and less to short-term extrinsic demands. In business settings, this is often bound up in charismatic leadership but does not depend upon it. It depends more on a high degree of competence in interpersonal communications or emotional intelligence. The younger the workforce, and the business represents a greater demand for a leadership approach based on intrinsic motivation and transformation leadership.

Some organizations get it right, while some have a proven track record of failure. Morale, esprit, and retention rates are typical metrics for measuring success. I think we’re getting better at developing leaders grounded in servant and transformation leadership, and the timing couldn’t be more critical. The Millennial Generation seems to have come to expect such leadership.

In sum, the intellectual component of leadership development in business is an amalgam of process improvement techniques, decision theory, and competency enhancement, but ultimately it’s a matter of leaders committed to selflessly putting the needs and interests of their followers above their own and then effectively communicating that care and concern.

No borrowed leadership techniques are going to replace that fact. No highly theoretical management practices are going to change that fact. As trite and clichéd as those words may be, they still capture the ultimate truth for aspiring and practicing business leaders. Everything else is secondary.

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