Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash
Leadership development doesn’t have one easy fix-all solution
I was recently reminded of a book that Jim Kouzes, author of The Leadership Challenge, first introduced to me called You Learn by Living, published in 1960 and written by Eleanor Roosevelt, whose résumé includes delegate to the United Nations, chair of the Human Rights Commission, and First Lady.
One quote from this book reads:
“When one attempts to set down in bald words any answers one has found to life’s problems, there is a great risk of appearing to think that one’s answer is either the only one or the best one. This, of course, would be nonsense. I have no such all-inclusive wisdom to offer, only a few guideposts that have proved helpful to me in the course of a long life. Perhaps they may steer someone away from the pitfalls into which I stumbled or help them to avoid the mistakes I have made. Or perhaps one can learn only by one’s own mistakes. The essential thing is to learn.”
As leadership development practitioners, we know the importance of our leaders being lifelong learners—both in the holistic sense of educating them through formal and informal mechanisms and encouraging them to learn in the small moments where they ask themselves: “What would I do differently? How can I improve?”
When I first read this quote, I thought about the “essential thing is to learn” part of the quote, but more recently I’ve been drawn to the first part of Eleanor’s words: the notion that giving advice or sharing answers to life’s problems puts us at risk of perpetuating the nonsense that there is only one best answer to each problem.
I was reminded of this quote recently during a meeting with a CEO. He asked the proverbial question about the “silver bullet” their company should be using to develop leaders. In other words, he wanted THE answer to developing leadership quickly with high return on investment.
I did stop short of telling him this was nonsense, but Eleanor’s words about avoiding the pitfall of there being only one right answer to a problem ran through my head.
I’ve been asked that question in my career more times than I can count. It can be tempting to offer a specific program or service as the best approach or right answer to developing leaders, but managing expectations around investment and payoff is tricky.
At FlashPoint, we attempt to steer clear of this pitfall by encouraging an important mindset around leadership development. We’d like organizations to think differently about leadership development and to move:
- From programmatic, event-based thinking TO strategy-driven, measured practices
- From sporadic, budget-cycle driven mindset TO a sustained, long-term investment
- From training on hot topics or burning issues TO a holistic, competency-based focus on all leader levels
From where I sit, the application of Eleanor’s wisdom has a couple meanings to us as leadership development practitioners.
First, we need to be genuine with our stakeholders
Leadership development is hard work. It takes intention, commitment, risk, vulnerability, and a long-term mindset focused on deepening relationships. That can’t happen through a single learning intervention alone. The lure of the silver bullet is a powerful thing, so it can be quite challenging to influence our stakeholders toward this new mindset.
To this end, we’ve found it helpful to answer the silver bullet questions with other types of questions, which can prompt new thinking about how the organization can best leverage leadership development offerings:
- What approaches can we use to get even better results from our programs?
- What leadership capabilities are critical to achieve business strategy?
- What methods can we introduce to ensure learning is sustained and applied?
- How will we measure success?
- How will we promote these successes to ensure continued investment?
Second, we need to meet our stakeholders where they are and influence them to where we need to go
Each day, I approach my work with humility and try to honor the good work organizations have already achieved. I affirm. I coach. I listen.
By being curious, I can find out what the organization wants to see improved, how they define the barriers, what their vision is for the next year, and so on. As practitioners in leadership development, we have an incredible opportunity to co-create the plan for how business leaders and other stakeholders can get better outcomes. We can drive deeper partnerships with the business to ensure relevancy and alignment. It is an iterative process, not a lightbulb moment for most stakeholders.
While the path toward building leadership capability with high return has its challenges—commitment can waver, the short-term gain can win out over the long-term interest, and fear can overcome our willingness to take risks—our job as leadership development practitioners is to make the journey feel as effortless as possible. We can be the humble and curious guide who partners with the business to keep making improvements to how we develop leaders at the organization.
In keeping with the spirit of our First Lady’s words, I know these ideas are not the only method, but I hope you find these guideposts helpful in thinking about how to address the silver bullet question with your stakeholders.