• Monday, July 22, 2024
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BusinessDay

How leadership development works

Leadership

Some leadership educators teach about leadership, while others teach how to lead. The overwhelming majority of leadership educators teach or purport to teach how to exercise leadership.Some teach those who already claim to be leaders how to lead better. Others teach those who do not claim to be leaders how to lead; in effect, they learn from scratch. However, by and large, leadership development, education, and training remain games for amateurs.

Some leadership experts have argued that leadership has no widely agreed-on metric, no body of knowledge, no core curriculum, no license or accreditation or certification considered by consensus to be legitimate. Therefore, learning to lead has become a metaphor for everything from becoming authentic, developing self-awareness, gaining self-confidence, achieving success, engaging others, acquiring a skill, managing people, managing projects, and creating change.

It is pertinent to note that the contexts within which leadership educators teach how to lead and leadership learners learn about leadership are of great consequence.Contexts matter in two related though different ways. First, it matters because leaders cannot distance themselves from the circumstances within which they are situated. Second, it matters because leaders’ levels of contextual consciousness, contextual expertise, and contextual intelligence will determine to a degree the level of their accomplishment.

The question then arises; what should leaders learn? What should be the cognitive content of leadership development programs? Is there an intellectual foundation, a specific body of knowledge, on which the edifice of leadership experience should be built?

One of the primary purposes of leadership development or learning how to lead is that the capacity to lead depends on reading the handwriting on the wall, or better still, the ability to read the wall itself. We call this contextual intelligence; it is the ability to understand the macro-level factors at play during a given period. It is a leader’s ability to make sense of his or her contextual framework. The contextual intelligence of the learner defines the success or failure of any leadership development programme.

According to Susan Ambrose et al.,mastery involves four separate steps: 1. recognizing the skills you do not have but should, 2. acquiring these skills, 3. practicing these skills, and 4. applying these skills to the right situations at the right time. The major difficulty learners or students face is that some seemingly simple skills involve a complex combination of skills. For example, analyzing a case requires component skills such as identifying the central question or dilemma of the case, articulating the perspectives of key actors, enumerate constraints, delineate possible courses of action, and recommend and justify a solution. In other words, mastering skills takes time, and we get better at using our skills the more we use them. Similarly, knowing when to apply a particular skill is itself a skill that takes time to acquire. It takes time because unless those skills are applied in situations within which we are familiar, the challenges of transferring knowledge or learning can be daunting.

Learning to lead takes time, and there can be no leadership development without time in which to develop. Arguably you can be educated or trained to lead, at least to a minimal degree, in a week or a month, but there is no way you can develop as a leader in a week or a month. Leadership development takes time. It takes years because development implies change and growth, neither of which can be done in haste. Development requires that leaders must continue to study, learn, and grow.

The very idea that leaders develop,communicates that you cannot become a leader or a significantly better leader than you already are by any single thing you do, such as enrolling in a leadership programme or hiring an executive coach, or securing a leadership mentor. This is not to say that these have no value. It is simply to say that we inflate their value. We think they will make a big difference over the long term. What makes a big difference over a long time is continuous learning, which cumulates because it continues.

Leaders develop because of the circumstances within which they find themselves. They happen to find themselves in situations or contexts that are more or less conducive to development. But some of the time, leaders find themselves in situations or in contexts that were deliberately designed to support and sustain development.

Organizations that value the importance of developing people’s capabilities often design a culture that mandates every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey while working every day. How is such a culture created? There must be evidence to support the proposition that workplaces consciously and creatively construct an atmosphere that encourages leadership development. For instance, you cannot be a leader in your workplace without knowing something about the organization within which you work. Organizations are systems of interacting elements that include, among other things, roles and responsibilities, policies, and practices. And this is why the success or failure of leadership development exercises depends not only on how clever and committed the various participants are but on whether the circumstance to which they operate is amenable to change and growth.