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As organizations implement programs to develop leaders, the focus is often all wrong.
Leadership emergence and complexity offer tremendous insight into the design of organizational leadership development and training programs for practitioners in all types of organizations. These ideas signal a shift in the very purpose of leadership development, from that of a behavioral prescription to that of a catalyst for increased interaction and transparency, resulting in effective responses to a wide variety of feedback. The exchange and processing of information aids in sustaining and often increasing organizational viability, by creating an organization that is responsive to its environment. Effective responses can be viewed as effective adaptation, and effective adaptation is, at its core, effective learning.
While organizations face increasingly dynamic environments both internally and externally, this view of responsiveness and adaptability is notably absent from many leadership development programs. In its place are assigned responses and mandated traits: Leaders are told what the end result should be and what the organization’s leader is made of. The goal of this type of learning is that the individual takes on this trait and adapts the stated behavior. The problem is, this can almost too easily be perceived as playing pretend, a fact evidenced as soon as a critical decision must be reached, or things don’t go according to plan and the “leader” goes off-script.
The experience of leadership development, instead, should focus on the process of revealing and increasing an individual’s leadership capacity as a shared experience. The program should continually monitor the individual’s gauge of their own purpose, self-efficacy and cognitive ability.
Leaders should be exposed to a variety of real organizational situations and be given the opportunity to process these contextual conditions and formulate responses with a group of other leaders and a program facilitator, so that the characteristic of open, transparent communication is fostered from the beginning of their leadership journey, rather than this being seen as a hindrance to individual success or learning. This reflects a much more immersive learning journey, which is appropriate for an individual entering a role in which they are expected to take on day-to-day challenges autonomously.
The leadership development program should be a version of a leadership simulator, much like pilot training takes place in a SIM before the pilot steps into the cockpit. Like pilot training, the leader should receive practice in responding to environmental feedback, probably fail a few times, receive coaching, learn and adapt their response.
At the executive level, sharing responsibility for decision-making with the organization — rather than prescribing a decision from the top down — illustrates this idea. The executive does not lose their position in the left seat, but instead shares control and steps in to guide the team away from possible hazards. While it may seem like skirting responsibility or giving up too much power, the reality is that the more transparent and open the organization is, the more the employee’s and customer’s voices are heard.
Leadership development programs can set the stage for this type of learning, adapting an organization by allowing leaders to learn from each other and their experiences. With this renewed focus, the better prepared the organization will be to respond to changes in the dynamic, often turbulent, environment in which it operates.
Dr. Kelly Lum
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