6 Rules To Transform Your Leadership Development Program

What makes a leader great? And what type of leader is best for your business? Digging into the questions--and answers--that are crucial to any company.

Peter Drucker, who remains the guru of management, had little to say on leadership. In fact, Drucker believed that leadership was only useful inside of organizations when viewed in aggregate. Indeed, Drucker said in his 1973 book Management that “It is therefore inappropriate to speak of managers as leaders.” That statement followed a paragraph in which Drucker stated:

“Even the most powerful head of the largest corporation is unknown to the public. Indeed most of the company’s employees barely know his name and would not recognize his face. He may owe his position entirely to personal merit and proven performance. He owes his authority and standing entirely to his institution.”

Drucker was writing in an era before social media, and before the age of celebrity. Contrary to Drucker’s assertion, most American’s clearly know the leaders of major corporations. Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, Jamie Dimon, Sam Walton and many others. Business leaders from around the world gather at Davos where CNN covers their opinions and photo ops with the same acuity they do celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Justin Beiber or Taylor Swift. Successful managers today use media to build their personal brand, which then accrues back to their organizations, a complete reversal of Drucker’s assertion. This implies that the perception of leadership, not just the actions of leadership, need to be considered in the valuation and trust applied to organizations.

Even if Drucker remains correct in his assertion that leadership derives from the relationship between the individual and the organization, many business leaders have decided that the spotlight and the thought bubble are as much a part of their jobs as effectively managing accounts receivable.

For junior or middle managers, the message is no longer one of simple competency taking one to the top, but that one must do so with a certain style, a panache. But companies still need good managers to keep operations going—and organization development needs to modify their mission not to just instill competency, but to identify and nurture leaders. The following six rules can help organizations large and small make their leadership development more effective and engaging.

1. Create an Organizational Context Writing a guide or creating a framework that essentially cobbles together the best ideas from multiple bestselling business books does not do the organization any good. It would be better to just buy the books and let your managers read them. Organizational development needs to focus on how ideas apply to the company in very specific ways: first honing them for the industry, and then applying them to company practice. Modern organizations with good strategic plans include very prescriptive language about how they differentiate themselves in the market. Leadership and management training should evolve from the strategic plan, not the best seller. If organizations can’t tie learning or development to furthering the organizations strategic goals, then those topics need to be either dropped or reworked until the right links can be fashioned.

2. Reconcile Management and Leadership
Many organizations create frameworks, competencies and guides intended to help employees see a broader world beyond their jobs, and to help move them through gates of achievement toward more responsibility, and hopefully, more pay and benefits. Functional silos within organizations can make management and leadership frameworks not only daunting, but in many cases, incomprehensible. The same term can be found in more than one framework with not only a different emphasis, but perhaps even a different definition. Organizations that want to create effective frameworks need to follow the guidance of those frameworks and apply teamwork, collaboration, negotiations and prioritization in order to create a comprehensive, sensible and cohesive language: eliminate conflicting ideas, focus on what really matters and clarify accountability. Ensure that leaders know they remain responsible and accountable for their management assignments as well as their influence.

3.Be Action Oriented
Explanations and definitions are well and good, but leadership development isn’t about recreating the Oxford English Dictionary. Leadership development should be about putting people into mental situations that stretch their world view, test their mental models, challenge their assumptions, force them to grow and make them practice events that they may not regularly see in their job so that they are prepared for them should they even occur.

4.Don’t Try to Manufacture Leaders
Leaders can be made. That is the false assumption underlying leadership training. I am not so sure. Managers can certainly be taught to work effectively and competently, but leadership tends to be an emergent property. People with the willingness to risk their careers for what they think is right, be it a policy area or a new product, are rare and valuable. Rather than trying to manufacture leaders organizations would be better off trying to identify them, nurture them and give them the freedom and permission to be leaders.

5.Use Leadership Attributes to Identify, Not to Instill
Leadership is not a list of attributes, it is a way of being and acting. Leaders necessarily reflects certain attributes, and those can be described, but leadership isn’t about reaching some tipping point on a check list and then suddenly finding oneself transformed from manager to leader.

Attributes, like integrity, authenticity, curiosity and tolerance can be inherited, perhaps enhanced in the work environment, but the investment to transform someone from passive to curious falls outside the charter of most organizational development functions—and a successful completion of such a transformation, certainly outside of its budget.

Good managers protect nascent leaders, give them time and space to discover their own passions and their own limitations. Leadership development needs to be just that, development, not training. Once leaders have been identified, placing them into situations where they can exercise the various attributes will help them refine those attributes in themselves.

6.Grant Permission, Don’t Create Incentives
Leadership, like collaboration, coaching and other complex concepts require permission, not incentives. Leaders want to lead, but they can’t do so in an organization that manages primarily with top-down, hierarchical edicts that execute through repressive practices that sow distrust even in areas where human safety is not a concern. Trying to create an incentive in those types of organizations does nothing but add to the frustration of potential leaders who want to disrupt, simplify and reinvent.

Permission on the other hand, speaks to openness, trust and receptivity to new ideas. Permission does not imply the availability of a suggestion box so some committee can review a new idea, but that a manager is willing to listen to the new idea and let the emergent leader run with it, even if it isn’t part of his or her job, or aligned perfectly with their responsibilities. As organizations work more and more horizontally, and increasingly with outside partners, contract labor and outsourcers, individuals in those organizations become exposed to a much broader swath of the company’s practices, and to alternative approaches and ideas from outside the firm. Permission is the ultimate incentive, because it empowers people to think for themselves, to seek patterns and to synthesize new ideas in a culture that is accepting of their insights. No amount of money or reward can substitute for intrinsic motivation.

In Management by Design, I go out of my way to take the discussion of culture off the table, replacing it with policy and practice, which are the ways culture manifests itself in a form that can be manipulated. Discussion of culture often becomes abstract and academic, not practical. In the case of permission vs. incentives, the best display of permission comes from stories of those who have tried and succeeded, or tried and failed, but rather than being punished, were recognized for the learning their attempt contributed. Example: A lessons learned in an aerospace company division creates an incentive to contribute through a contest. Those who don’t win lose interest. When the system opens up to the entire company, and peers recognize good ideas use, engagement and contributions soar. When the policy of permission becomes the practice of permission leaders will emerge to test boundaries, eliminate complexity and build new networks of value.

Managing for Good Leadership
I will return to Drucker at the close. In a 2004 interview with Forbes, Drucker suggests that leaders, perhaps more so than managers, are self-reflective and self-motivated. They document what success looks like, and they regularly check to see if they are succeeding, and perhaps most importantly, if the definition of success has changed over time.

Leaders identify what needs to be done and they go make sure that it is done. Leaders focus on important things, and their focus reinforces how important those things are to others. To remain focused, a leader says no to distractions and requests unrelated to their mission. Leaders purposefully bring outside perspective in to ensure their solutions aren’t myopic or overly tied to existing assumptions within the organization about what is possible.

Drucker’s description of a leader is holistic and integrated. Leaders are clearly not made from cobbled together components, or developed through a curriculum that imparts particular skills. The language of leadership needs to be equally cohesive, and its purpose clear and succinct. If your organization is “developing leaders” then it should do so through a single, comprehensive and integrated approach, and any time leadership is referenced in other circumstances, it should circle back to those same definitions, approaches and expectations. Don’t confuse potential leaders with multiple frameworks or approaches to development—leadership development should reflect good leadership practice: it should be focused, it should be on mission and it should be aimed at the customer, in this case, the leader or potential leader—and it should offer a clear value proposition for why the leader should invest his or her valuable time in such a program.

[Image: Flickr user Dale]