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Driving the Leadership Development Process

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Imagine sitting in driver’s education training. Remember sitting through horrible films like Blood Runs Red on the Highway or Mechanized Death and listening to a boring instructor drone on about highway safety and strange street signs? You sat through this training because doing so meant you could receive your driver’s permit. Once you received your permit, you spent hours behind the wheel with instructors, parents, and friends learning on the streets, perhaps even practicing maneuverability in an empty parking lot.

Fast forward a few weeks and you found yourself at a computer taking a written test and behind the wheel taking a road test. While tedious, the driver education process makes pretty good sense: you learn from a teacher, study on your own, and practice with someone more experienced.

Switch gears (pun intended) with me to leadership. All too often, we only provide the in-class portion of leadership education and training within the context of our programs. Sure, there may be one or two exercises that allow participants to practice what has been learned, but more often than not, participants are not given the chance to practice “on the road” where it is messy and confusing, and where oftentimes there are no clear cut solutions.

On the opposite end are those programs that develop leaders through activities. It is almost as if these participants have not received the in-class portion of drivers ed: They simply learn behind the wheel (good habits, bad habits, and everything in between). Take the Boy Scouts for example. Boy Scouts arguably provide an incredible opportunity for people to develop and learn. Much of the learning is based on first-hand experience, however, if no one is there to help connect the dots or help participants reflect on what is happening, myriad opportunities for leadership learning and growth are missed.

It seems to me the answer is a both/and approach to leadership development. Leadership cannot be taught in the classroom any better than driving. At some point, you just have to go out and do it. Even if the classroom does offer opportunities to “practice” (the drivers education equivalent of a driving course), it is not the same as truly being in the thick of a difficult leadership challenge that on-the-job experiences offer.

I came across a quote by Jay Conger a few years ago that really struck me. The quote is from his book, Learning to Lead: ”Most would agree that to seriously train individuals in the arts of leadership takes enormous time and resources – perhaps more than societies or organizations possess, and certainly more than they are willing to expend.”

There are a lot of leadership camps and sporadic trainings available, but to seriously train someone in leadership, a camp (one-six day experience) simply will not do. It can only be a part of a larger process.

Could attending a three-to-six day piano camp develop a world-class pianist? It’s doubtful unless you are working with Mozart. Developing leadership capacity is in some ways similar to developing other skills, competencies, or behaviors. It takes time, consistent practice, coaching, and reflection. Many organizations, divisions, and departments are not structured to facilitate this work. As a result, individuals spend years in organizations with few opportunities to truly grow as an effective leader in a variety of contexts.

One thing is for sure: Leadership development is a challenging endeavor. Conger suggests, “The development of leadership ability is a very complex process. It starts before birth, with a prerequisite of certain genes that favor intelligence, physical stamina, and perhaps other qualities. Family members, peers, education, sports, and other childhood experiences then influence the child’s need for achievement, power, risk taking, and so on.

“Work experiences and mentors shape the raw leadership materials of childhood and early adulthood into actual leadership by providing essential knowledge and behavioral skills. Opportunity and luck are the final determinants of who gets a chance to lead.”

I think he is right and wonder if our driving students would agree.

So how do we move past the superficial experiences, fads, and drive-by approaches and get to the deep work needed to help people be more successful when serving as a leader? Organizations have one half the equation figured out – the experiential opportunity. It seems the other half — the consistent coaching, feedback, and a culture of development — may be lacking. In this arena, it seems as if the DMV has done it better than most. Scary, huh?

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