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Why Leadership Development Must Change

We Can Do Better!



My grandfather was born in 1901. He grew up in an agrarian society with a bath and a path rather than a bath and a half. He learned to read by the light of a kerosene lamp, worked a team of horses before he learned to drive a “horseless carriage,” marveled when Orville and Wilbur took flight, watched Ozzy and Harriett in black and white, and then the Wizard of Oz in “Techno-color.” He popped Jiffy-Pop on a pot-bellied stove and looked on as Neil Armstrong took a small step for man and a giant leap for mankind. He pressed a button on a microwave oven and watched corn magically pop in a paper bag while talking “long-distance” on a telephone. All of this before he died in 1984. Unlike my grandfather’s time here on earth, things don’t move so slowly for us today.


I recently read a book by Meg Whitley called Leadership and the New Science that reminded me of this truth. What she taught me was organizations are a lot like mountain streams. If you want to capture your current experience, you better take a picture. The rains come, the floods rise, water levels change, the force increases and eventually wains. What was once up stream is now downstream. Seasons come and go just like the visitors that approach the stream. No stream will ever be the same again as it is this very moment. At best, all you can do is anticipate the changes coming. The same is true with the organizations and industries we encounter during our careers.


In this ever-changing, chaotic world, leadership must be two things: intentional and adaptive. People, like myself, who specialize in leadership development must realize we, too, are standing midstream in an ever-changing environment. We cannot keep applying the same tactics and expect to remain midstream when the course of the river is forever cutting new paths through the forest.


What we deliver, how we deliver, and where we deliver is not the same today as it was two years ago. What’s even more difficult to wrap our brains around is the fact that it also varies greatly from what it will be two months from now. Let me bend your brain even further; not all organizations are walking in the same stream. In fact, I would go even further and say no two organizations are ever in the same stream at the same time. Why then are we still trying to force our templated leadership development programs on everyone? Are we unintentionally doing the organizations we serve a tremendous disservice?


Leadership practitioners must begin to fully embrace what they have claimed to embrace for decades – customization. Customization is not applying the latest fad from one stream onto a visitor in the midst of a different stream. Customization must be intentional to each specific organization and the waters they must navigate. That intentionality must start at the top. You cannot change your corporate culture by hiring some guru to come entertain your middle and lower-level managers and expect to have a consistent leadership DNA across your organization. Instead, all that will actually produce is high turnover and dysfunctional teams.


In today’s ever-changing, individualized, and specialized environment, leadership development must be the product of a consultative process. Leaders must be designed, not hired. Hired leaders bring too much baggage from other streams. Today’s leadership development starts with an interview process at the top of the organization. What do you want your leaders to look like? What are the values you want instilled in them? How would you like to see authority and accountability distributed in your organization? These questions, and more, must be answered at the top level of a company before a leadership program can truly claim to be customized.


Once the data is gleaned, the customization of design begins. The training then starts at the top where it can be evaluated and tweaked to ensure the DNA is an adequate reflection of the stream to which it belongs. Once finalized, the intentional model can be disseminated to the entire organization.


Initial training sessions are only the beginning because the stream is always changing. Course correction must play an integral role in the perpetuation of an organization’s leadership DNA survival. This way styling can be adjusted to accommodate the approaching waters without totally abandoning the intentional design. Regular recertifications make these adjustments while perpetuating the ongoing success of the leadership development initiative.


Onboarding new leaders is now an investment in their development rather than a cry for help. When we train new leaders in our own unique leadership brand, we ensure consistency across our organizations. When we hire new leaders to rescue us from our own dysfunction, we introduce organizational psychosis.


As leadership development professionals we must recognize the damage we are doing to our client organizations and start pushing more toward customized approaches, helping industry executives connect to the leadership development process rather than just delegating it out. Until we stop selling programs as magic wands and start developing high-level relationships with organizational change agents and guardians of vision, we are not helping anyone achieve success.


Let’s start the conversation


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