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Rethinking leadership development in an age of uncertainty

As uncertainty continues to structure nearly every aspect of our lives and work, it is time for leaders to seriously rethink their approach to leadership development.

Rethinking leadership development in an age of uncertainty
[Вадим Пастух/Adobe Stock]

Facing uncertainty on a short-term basis is typical and can even be beneficial as it holds the potential to push us into the learning zone. Dealing with uncertainty on a permanent basis is a different story. It can demand a new approach to living, leading, and learning.

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As uncertainty continues to structure nearly every aspect of our lives and work, it is time for leaders to seriously rethink their approach to leadership development. Below, I’ll offer three concrete strategies to help you rethink your own leadership development and how you are promoting leadership development on your teams.

REDEFINE WHAT CONSTITUTES GREAT LEADERSHIP

Over the past two years, how we evaluate great leadership has undergone the biggest shift I’ve witnessed since I started working as a business psychologist and coach over 20 years ago.

Some leaders have stopped pretending to be fearless, while others have opened up about their own mental health struggles. Many leaders have also embraced a more collaborative approach to help drive agility and innovation in the face of crises. Most notably, a growing number of leaders have started to admit that they don’t have all the answers and openly embrace uncertainty instead.

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Put simply, the traditional “hero” leader—the prototypical stealthy and certain leader—no longer offers a de facto model of outstanding leadership. If you haven’t already done so, step back and redefine what great leadership looks like and, more importantly, assess how to cultivate it on your team in the years ahead.

RETHINK THE CRITERIA USED TO IDENTIFY HIGH-POTENTIAL EMPLOYEES

As you reassess and redefine great leadership, also take time to audit your high-potential program. After all, as leadership qualities shift, identifying and grooming high-potential employees for future leadership roles also needs to change. As a bonus, redefining leadership excellence may also provide your organization with a long-overdue opportunity to rethink who you’re recruiting and why, resulting in a more diverse leadership talent pipeline.

INTEGRATE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT INTO EVERYTHING

As a business psychologist working with leaders and teams across industries, I’ve seen firsthand how the pandemic has upended leadership development programs. Prior to the pandemic, most of my team engagements took place in-person at off-site events and retreats. There seemed to be a consensus across industries that the best way to drive leadership growth was through intensive in-person engagements that happened just once a year or quarterly. Organizations willing to invest more often augmented these intensive engagements with coaching and online skills, but most training was concentrated to a few days each year or quarter.

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Two years into the pandemic, planning an offsite event or retreat continues to prove challenging. It can be challenging to predict the pandemic’s course just a week or two in advance. Attentive to these challenges, human resources leaders are now looking for alternative programs that offer access to ongoing leadership development (e.g., weekly rather than quarterly or yearly engagements). And it is not just HR leaders who are changing how they think about leadership development.

In my work, I increasingly find myself meeting leaders and team members who are actively looking for flexible ways to cultivate new leadership skills, even as they adjust to the increasingly unpredictable world of work.

The most innovative leaders and organizations are seeking ways to integrate leadership development into everything they do. They’re building trusted peer groups where employees can test out new skills and share perspectives. They are also looking for ways to use ongoing leadership development initiatives to replace some of the things we lost when work moved primarily or largely online, including the casual conversations we once had with peers in the lunchroom and at after-work events. What’s clear is that as teams become increasingly distributed across physical locations, leadership development also needs to adapt.

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Dr. Camille Preston is a business psychologist, leadership expert, and the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership

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