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Posted: October 30, 2013

Rethinking leadership development

Most don't go below the surface

Michael Vaughan

Why do most training programs fail to change behavior? One of the main reasons is most of the programs focus on the characteristics of leadership. These are generally vague concepts that encapsulate a list of desirable attributes, such as, charisma, vulnerability, confidence etc., which are often unattainable or at odds. That is, they require an individual to move across a rather broad spectrum of abilities or to go against his innate styles. 

I have seen three types of leadership programs. Shotgun leadership programs teach many different topics based on a laundry list of desired competencies. Rubber-glove leadership programs probe and surface blind spots and strengths through numerous assessment instruments. Feel-good leadership programs tap great speakers to convey their decades of wisdom within 60 minutes of exciting lecture.

Each of these programs has its merits. However, they all have one common problem: they do not go below the surface. They consistently fail to deliver on their promises because they focus on visible factors and address them by teaching concepts, tips, introspection, and what great leaders do. But leadership, organizations, and people are dynamic. Every factor needs to be understood from a systems perspective within the context of the organization.

According to Henry Mintzberg, a management and business strategy expert with more than 150 articles and 15 books to his credit, “Sustainable success and successful leadership of an enterprise can be explained by factors other than visible results and the behavior of individual persons.” He pointed to the necessity of understanding the systems levels underneath the surface, examining what is “below the waterline.”

The simple impact map below shows a partial view of the dynamics of human responses to leadership behaviors. In other words, how a manager motivates their team to achieve better performance.

The circles (coaching, directing) represent a few things a leader can control, and the boxes (stress, motivation, performance) represent part of how the team responds. The two lightly colored boxes (issues, deliverables) represent the results produced.

 Let’s run some mental simulations. Morale is down, issues are up, and the team is falling behind on monthly objectives. As the leader, what do you do? Do you step in and tell your team specifically what needs to be done and how to do it (directing)? Or, do you mentor and teach your team to higher performance (coaching)? Or do you just increase the pressure on the team to get results (priorities)?  What be will the short-term impacts on performance, stress, and motivation? Are those acceptable? And what are the long-term effects? 

Even well-intended actions can create undesirable results. Let’s say you decide to invest your energy on coaching others. As a result, motivation probably improves, which causes performance to improve. Consequently, many deliverables are accomplished. As more gets done, your team feels good and motivation further improves. But even with the most capable teams, things go wrong from time to time and issues start to surface.

As the issues increase, so does stress, which increases the number of issues and decreases motivation. When you realize these effects, you begin to split your energy between resolving issues and increasing motivation through coaching. This makes sense conceptually, but when your boss calls to express concern that you missed three of your five deliverables, you might decide it is time to take matters into your own hands and start directing others more diligently.

This can cause motivation to plummet, as the team feels less and less confident of their ability to handle the job – creating the need for even more directing to make up the gap. They are also not getting the time and help that it takes to improve. They are just following orders and losing confidence, even though their performance might temporarily improve. If you do not understand the dynamics, these actions can cause performance levels to cycle between adequate and unacceptable, with increasing stress and eventual burnout.

With these powerful dynamics at work, even the best leadership tools, tips, and tricks are impractical and inadequate. To best prepare leaders for today's complex dynamics and to maximize your training dollars, it’s worth rethinking some of the leadership development programs you have in place or are planning to implement. 

Michael Vaughan is the author of The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker. He is the CEO and Managing Director of The Regis Company, whose leadership programs are designed to fundamentally change the way leaders think. Vaughan is a leading authority on serious games and business simulations and holds degrees in cognitive science and computer science from Colorado State University. For more information, please visit www.thethinkingeffect.com and www.regiscompany.com.

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